Employee & Community Health

Coping with the common cold

2/12/2018 by Dr. Henry Schultz

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Your nose is stuffed up. You have a fever, a headache and your body aches all over. And you've felt crummy for what seems like forever. You have a cold. 

So what's a cold and what's the best way to cope with the symptoms while you recover?

A cold is: 

  • NOT the flu (influenza), which hits you with severe body aches, high fever, headache, bad cough and feeling like you can't crawl out of bed. 
  • Caused by a wide array of viruses. It can last anywhere from 10 to 21 days, depending on the virus. And you can be infected with two or even three viruses at the same time. Also, that cold that seems to last forever actually may be back-to-back infections. 
  • Transmitted most often by coming in contact with an infected person — or something they've touched. Colds are less likely to be caught from someone coughing or sneezing. 
  • NOT treated with antibiotics. Research has shown that antibiotics do not shorten the length of a cold or ease the symptoms. 

The best way to treat a cold is not to get one! That means during cold season, wash your hands and/or use hand sanitizer and stay away from those who are sick. Avoid touching your face, since your eyes, nose and mouth are easy entry points for viruses that you pick up on your hands. 

 But if you do get a cold, here's how to cope and relieve your symptoms:

  • Stay home from work if you're constantly blowing your nose and coughing. You're contagious for three to seven days after you come down with a cold. 
  • Take zinc lozenges (NOT zinc nasal spray) at the first sign of a scratchy throat. Zinc can help shorten the length of your cold. 
  • Using an over-the-counter (OTC) nasal spray such as NasalChrom can help when you first get sick. 
  • Take acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) on a regular schedule — by the clock — not just when you feel achy or feverish. Be sure to follow the instructions on the package; you may want to alternate between the two medications. This remedy can make a huge difference. 
  • To reduce post-nasal drip and runny nose, take a combination antihistamine/decongestant such as Sudafed PR Sinus + Allergy. Choose a medication that doesn't contain acetaminophen; it's better to take that separately. This remedy may make you drowsy, but the "non-drowsy" antihistamines (Claritin, Allegra, Zyrtec, etc.) are not effective for drainage from a cold. 
  • For more serious congestion in your nose, sinuses or ears, take Afrin nasal spray, which is more effective than Sudafed. Use it NO LONGER than three to five days. 
  • To relieve a cough, try an OTC cough medicine. For a more severe cough, talk with your care team about getting a prescription cough syrup that contains codeine. 

If your fever lasts more than three to five days, if you have chest pain, ear pain, are coughing up blood or cough so hard that you vomit or pass out, you should contact your care team immediately. 

Otherwise, rest, drink plenty of fluids and hang in there. This cold will pass. 

Dr. Henry Schultz is a primary care physician in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Primary Care Internal Medicine (PCIM). In addition to primary care, he also is dedicated to educating future physicians and has received Mayo Clinic Department of Medicine's Lifetime Achievement Award for Medical Education.