Cold medicine and tissues

The Common Cold - Information and Tips

Jan 14, 2020

By: Stephen Vogel

Unfortunately, the cold & flu season comes around each year without fail. Infections not seen very often during the summer months return like clockwork and many of us will catch one sooner than later. Let’s learn a bit about them, how to avoid them, and what to do when we get one.

What is a cold?

The “cold” is just a word that we use for the set feelings we get (symptoms), not the exact. Most colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria, and the medical term for a cold is an upper respiratory infection (URI).

How do I treat a cold?

Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics, and there are no medicines to fight off viruses that cause the common cold. Most people with healthy immune systems need only time, rest from their usual activities, and supportive care (drinking more water, hot tea, steamy showers, humidifiers in the bedroom) to manage their symptoms and let their body rid the infection.

What are the symptoms and how do I manage them?

Runny or congested nose, cough: We can have a dry or wet (productive) cough with a cold. Mucous in a productive cough can be clear, yellow, green or brown, but the color does not help us say how serious the infection is. The chest congestion we feel can often be from the mucous dripping down the back of our throat when we lie flat at night, rather than being created in the lungs. Drink more fluids than you normally do to help your airways stay hydrated. A humidifier in the bedroom also helps keep the environment moist. Consider over the counter (OTC) nasal rinses to clear your nose. Over the counter decongestants like Phenylephrine and Guaifenesin and over the counter cough medicine like dextromethorphan can help, but not always and do have side effects, so it is best to talk to your doctor first.

Sore throat: Warm or cold liquids, OTC throat lozenges (Sucrets, Cepacol, Chloraseptic), Tylenol and/or ibuprofen can all help.

Fatigue: Rest and sleep are very important. Our bodies are working very hard to fight off the viruses so everything you do should be less intense than normal. It is OK to exercise lightly if this is already part of your routine but only if you feel you are able. Intense physical stress will only hurt your body’s ability to rid the infection. How long do these symptoms last? Unfortunately, it varies from person to person and from virus to virus. 3-10 days is typical, but can last longer. The cough, especially, can frequently last a month.

Can I go to work with a cold?

You can, but only if you feel that you can safely do your job and maintain good hand hygiene. Some workplaces may ask you wear a mask or stay home, so it is important to let them know how you are feeling.

I feel like I’ve had a cold for a month! What’s going on?

Unfortunately, in peak season and especially if you are around children (who pick up colds and virus germs frequently), you can get sick from different viruses within just a few weeks. So that cold that got better but doesn’t go away or gets worse again may actually be a new cold virus. It is all the more important to follow the tips above!

How can I avoid catching or spreading a cold?

The virus that infects someone and causes what we call an upper respiratory infection (URI) can spread by droplets, meaning liquid that travels through the air when we cough or sneeze. The air we let out even with just a cough is humid with tiny amounts of saliva and, when we’re sick, those viruses hitch a ride from the back of our throat into the open air. If we cover our mouths with our hands to cough, those virus droplets are ready to be spread to a surface or directly onto another person. That’s why it’s important to follow these steps:

  • Wash hands frequently with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds each time.
  • Cough into your arm or shoulder
  • Wear a mask and avoid touching your mouth, nose or face

When should I see be worried?

Occasionally, a URI can develop into something more serious. When your body is working hard to fight a virus, it can make it easier for bacteria to grow and infect you. If you have fevers, especially ones that do not go down with Tylenol or ibuprofen, please see your doctor as this may be a sign of a bacterial infection. If you have facial pain and fever that lasts for longer than 7 days this could be bacterial sinusitis (see our other blog) which should be evaluated by a doctor and will need antibiotics. Fever with a wet cough, chest pain when breathing or feeling like it is difficult to breath could be pneumonia so should be evaluated, too.

If you are at all concerned when sick, we encourage you to visit the doctor during business hours or the urgent care after hours. If you feel it is a medical emergency, please go directly to the emergency room (ER).