What to Do for a Cold
A cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, mostly the nose, throat, and sinuses. There are more than 100 different viruses that can cause the common cold. Colds are contagious for about 1 week, starting the day before symptoms begin. To reduce the chance of spreading a cold, avoid direct and close contact with others.
How does a cold start?
A cold begins 18-48 hours before any cold symptoms appear. The symptoms begin abruptly. Most often, a cold will begin with a scratchy feeling in the throat, sneezing, runny nose and overall fatigue. Chills and mild headaches are common. Body aches and coughing vary depending on the cold and the person.
What can you expect?
As a cold goes on, the nasal discharge may increase. This can mean more nose blowing, sniffling, and coughing. These cold symptoms will most often go away within 4-7 days.
How can a cold be cured?
There is no known cure for a cold. Antibiotics do not cure viral infections. If you take antibiotics when you don’t need them, they can be harmful.
Is there any relief for this misery?
There are steps you can take to relieve your discomfort and to help your body fight the cold. It’s important to know that people respond in their own ways not only to a cold but also to the relief measures. You may need to adapt the hints to fit your own needs.
One of your best defenses against a cold is to maintain good health. This may shorten the length of a cold or even protect you from getting as many colds. Maintaining good health means eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep and exercise, not smoking, and learning to cope with the stresses in your life.
To avoid spreading your cold to others, cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Wash your hands after coughing or sneezing and dispose of the tissues you used in the proper container.
But if you have a cold now, here are some helpful hints.
- Get more rest. Your body needs the energy to fight the cold.
- Increase liquids. Drink at least two quarts a day.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking will only make your sore throat and cough worse.
- Use a vaporizer or humidifier to increase humidity and reduce irritation to your nose and throat. Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions for cleaning your equipment.
- Dress for the weather.
For a Sore Throat
- Gargle with salt water every 6-8 hours (use 1/2 tsp. salt in a glass of warm water). If your throat is still sore after 48 hours, stop the salt-water gargles and call your health care provider.
- Don't gargle with prepared mouthwashes. They may be irritating or drying.
- Slowly suck on hard candies between gargles to help soothe and moisten your sore throat.
- If you're hoarse, try to limit talking and avoid talking over background noise and shouting.
- Take aspirin (or acetaminophen) according to the directions on the bottle.
- If these measures aren’t helpful, use an antiseptic-anesthetic spray, such as Chloraseptic® throat spray.
For a Cough
A cough is the body’s way of removing foreign material. If your cough is keeping you awake or causing you pain, you can use a cough syrup. The best cough syrups are the simple ones with guaifenesin and dextromethorphan. Avoid those that contain several ingredients. Your doctor, nurse or pharmacist can tell you which cough syrups these are.
For Nasal, Sinus or Ear Congestion
Cold tablets. Your best source of relief from stuffiness is to use a decongestant, such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed®) or a nasal spray. Pseudoephedrine can be bought without a prescription. Do not drive after taking cold medicines until you are sure that no side effects will occur. For instance, some medicines may make you drowsy or jittery. If you have high blood pressure, be sure to check with your doctor or nurse about a medicine before you buy it.
Many cold tablets contain an antihistamine, which does not decongest your nose and may delay healing by drying secretions too much. Tablets with many ingredients often contain such low dosages of drugs that they are not helpful.
Nose drops and sprays (e.g. Afrin® or Oxymetazoline®, Neosynephrine®, Dristan®) are designed to shrink swollen membranes. But, if they are used for more than 3 days, there is a good chance that they may increase irritation and swelling.
For Fever, Body Aches, Headache
Aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen will give you some relief from these symptoms.
- Don’t blow your nose by holding one nostril shut. This builds up pressure that may force the cold into the ears or sinuses. Blow very gently with both nostrils open.
- Don’t change the dosage of any of the medicines or take more than one brand at one time. Too much cold medicine may cause more problems, such as nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, too much dryness of the nose and throat, or high blood pressure.
- Don’t drive. Use caution when riding in an airplane, swimming or doing activities that involve changes in air pressure. When you have a cold, the openings from your nasal passages to the sinuses and middle ears are often blocked. When blocked, the air pressure inside the cavities is no longer equal with the air pressure outside the body. Pressure changes may cause severe pain, especially in the ears and sinuses.
- Don’t take “left over” or old antibiotics. If your health care practitioner prescribes an antibiotic for a bacterial infection, take them as instructed and finish the prescription.
When to Call Your Doctor or Nurse
- A severe sore throat. A throat culture will rule out a “strep” infection that requires special treatment. This is very important if you have had rheumatic fever or repeated strep throats.
- A fever over 100.4º F that lasts more than 48 hours.
- A cough that brings up thick, green, yellow, or bloody phlegm. A cough from tickling in the throat or drainage from the nose is to be expected.
- A throbbing or severe ache or pain in an ear, especially if hearing is also decreased.
- Head pain or facial pain (over the cheekbones or above your eyes) that won’t go away and green/yellow/bloody discharge from nose.
- Chest pain with breathing or unexplained shortness of breath.
- If you have asthma or recurrent sinusitis, a cold can be a more serious problem. You should ask your doctor or nurse for special instructions.
- If you have followed the suggestions in this handout for a week but have not begun to improve, make an appointment to see your health care provider.
The information provided should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
Last Updated: 10/01/2010
Copyright © 07/19/2010 University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority. All rights reserved. Produced by the Department of Nursing. HF#4387
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