A cold is an upper respiratory infection caused by a virus. There are at least 200 different cold viruses, the most common one being the rhinovirus ("nose virus"). Symptoms of a cold usually include a runny nose, sneezing, coughing, sore throat, muscle aches, headaches, low grade fever and congestion of the ears, nose and head. Colds usually last for a few days, but symptoms can persist for weeks.
A perceptive physician once said, "If you treat cold symptoms vigorously, they will go away in seven days. If left alone, they will disappear over the course of a week." There is no cure for the common cold. It is a viral illness that just needs to run its course.
Because flus are caused by viruses, antibiotic treatment (which work against bacteria) are ineffective. Over-the-counter medications may relieve some symptoms, but will not affect the course of the illness. Remember, your symptoms are a sign that your body’s defenses are fighting the virus. Your body will ultimately heal itself, so be patient and be good to yourself!
Self-Care for a Cold
- Drink plenty of clear fluids.
- Get lots of rest.
- Inhale steam from a hot shower, vaporizer, or kettle. Moisten air with a humidifier.
- Maintain a light exercise routine if you feel up to it.
- Avoid smoking.
- Over-the-counter medications such as decongestants, gargles, lozenges, cough syrups, or acetaminophen can relieve symptoms. It’s usually best to take a single medicine targeted for a particular symptom, rather than an all-in-one preparation. Read warning labels. Follow instructions. Use only when necessary.
You can try to lessen your symptoms with some old-fashioned and modern-day remedies. One of the oldest and most effective treatments is to rest and drink plenty of water. Water helps restore lost fluids and keeps mucus thin and flowing. Hot showers or a cool mist vaporizer can also liquify secretions and unstuff a stuffed-up nose. And mom's chicken soup? Warm beverages are soothing to the throat and may help thin nasal secretions, but there's no magic to chicken soup.
When a runny nose becomes a burden, decongestants can provide some relief without drowsiness. For a cough that is dry, irritates your sore throat and keeps you awake, look for a suppressant cough syrup with dextromethorphan. Cough syrups plus a vaporizer at your bedside can be a soothing combination for getting a good night's sleep. To loosen throat mucus, look for an expectorant syrup with guaifenesin.
Some folks try to manage with antihistamines, typically used for allergy relief. These medications cause drowsiness and can make cold congestion worse. Use nasal sprays as a last resort, never for more than three days. Be sure and read the entire label on over-the-counter medications. Some have precautions if you have a chronic health problem or are taking other prescription medications. Call your doctor if you are not sure what you can take to provide symptom relief.
When to Call Your Doctor
Cold (and flu) viruses probably account for more unnecessary trips to the doctor than any other causes. Using the self-care measures outlined above can help save you money, time and frustration. However, understanding when you need your doctor's help is also part of wise medical self-care. After 8-10 days, if your symptoms seem to be getting worse, not better, call your doctor.
Cold Prevention Tips
- Wash your hands often. Avoid touching your face and your eyes.
- Avoid sharing objects (cups, utensils, cigarettes, etc) with someone with a cold or flu.
- Use disposable tissues and dispose after use.
- Reduce stress. Stress can lower your body’s ability to fend off colds and flus.
- Eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly.
Related Services at the Tang Center
Talk with the Pharmacist at your local drugstore for help with over-the-counter medications for symptom relief.
- Talk with the UHS Pharmacist (or your local drugstore) for help with over-the-counter medications for symptom relief.
- Advice Nurse: (510) 643-7197
- Appointments: (510) 642-2000
- Ask a Health Worker (located in residence halls and other housing - see Who's Your Health Worker).
For Faculty and Staff:
- Please refer questions to your health plan or primary care provider.
Disclaimer: The information provided here is not intended to diagnose, treat or provide a second opinion on any health problem or disease. It is meant to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between an individual and his/her clinician.