wisdom is that when you have a cold, it’s best to treat it at home. According
to the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, colds are caused by viruses, which cannot be treated with
antibiotics. In fact, taking antibiotics when you have a viral infection may do
more harm than good, and may actually increase your risk of getting an
infection later that will be resistant to antibiotic treatment.
A typical cold will last about 10 days. During the life of the
cold, it can seem to actually get worse. How do you know when to wait it out,
when to seek medical care, or when to try other treatments?
Find Out If You Have a Cold or the Flu »
What Is a Cold?
Did You Know?
There are over 200 viruses that can cause a cold.
The common cold is an upper respiratory infection caused by a
virus that creates inflammation in the nose and throat. Symptoms include a
runny nose, sore throat, cough, watery eyes, sneezing, congestion, headaches,
fatigue, and sometimes a low-grade fever.
Colds typically last from one to two weeks, with the body’s
immune system eventually eradicating the infection on its own. Sometimes,
however, complications may arise that require a doctor’s intervention.
The First Day
Symptoms of the common cold usually begin two to three days
after initial infection, so by the time you start feeling it, you’ve probably
been contagious for two to three days.
On day one, you’re likely to experience a little tickle in the
back of your throat, and find yourself reaching for tissues more often than
usual. At this point, it may be difficult to determine whether you have the
cold or the flu. Typically, you’ll feel more fatigue and body aches with the
flu, but during the first day it can be hard to tell.
your symptoms as soon as you suspect an infection may help you recover faster
than you normally would. According to the Mayo Clinic, recent studies
indicate that zinc may help shorten the duration of a cold. Taking zinc
supplements as early as possible seems to increase your odds of experiencing
Research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that symptoms
ended two days earlier in adults who took zinc either as a lozenge, pill, or
syrup at the beginning of their cold compared to adults who didn’t take any.
In addition to taking zinc, you can try these at-home remedies:
- drink plenty of fluids
- suck on cough drops or lozenges medicated with menthol or
- use a humidifier or vaporizer (or do hot steam showers) to clear
sinus passages and ease sinus pressure
- avoid alcoholic or caffeinated beverages as they increase the
risk of dehydration
- try saline nasal sprays if needed to clear the nose and sinuses
- try decongestants, particularly those that contain
- get plenty of rest
You may even want to consider taking one to two days off of work
to stay home and sleep. Your body repairs best while asleep, and getting some
extra rest early on may help your immune system better fight the virus. This
also will protect your co-workers from catching the same virus.
On the second and third days, you’re likely to experience a
worsening of symptoms, such as a consistently runny nose and increased sore
throat. You may also have a low-grade fever (less than 102°F). You may not feel
much different than you did on day one if your at-home remedies are working.
Keep up with fluids, rest, and zinc and you may get away with only a few
sniffles and coughs.
During this time you’re, typically, most contagious, so practice
good hand washing. Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze and cough. Try to
stay home from work if you can. Regularly disinfect surfaces such as
countertops, phones, doorknobs, and computer keyboards.
Try these treatments to ease your symptoms:
have used chicken soup for generations to help when family members feel ill.
Now, scientists have discovered that it does seem to
help reduce inflammation and relieve congestion.
sure you get plenty of rest. Take naps if you feel like it. Propping yourself
up with pillows can lessen sinus congestion, thereby enabling you to sleep
loosen congestion, sit over a bowl of hot water, place a towel over your head,
and inhale the steam. A hot, steamy shower may also help. You can also use a
vaporizer or humidifier in your room to loosen congestion and help you sleep.
Take an Antihistamine
may provide relief from cough, sneezing, watery eyes, and a runny nose.
Soothe Your Throat
beverages with honey to soothe throat pain, or gargle with warm salt water. For
a cough, try an over-the-counter expectorant. An expectorant is a drug that
bring up mucus and other material from the lungs.
Cool a Fever
relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help with fever and headaches.
Do not give aspirin to children under the age of 19, as it has been associated
with the risk of a rare but serious illness called Reye’s syndrome.
relief from a fever, try placing a cool washcloth on your forehead or behind
your neck. You can also take a lukewarm shower or bath.
feel well enough to exercise, it may help boost your immune system. But make
sure that you don’t overdo it! Intense activity can reduce your resistance to
the infection. Try a brisk walk rather than an all-out run.
This is usually the most intense period for nasal symptoms. Your
nose may be completely congested, and you may find you’re going through box
after box of tissues. Nasal discharge may become thicker and turn yellow or
green. Your throat may be sore, and you may have headaches. You may also notice
more fatigue at this stage, as your body assembles all its defenses to fight
off the virus.
At this point, it’s important to keep your sinuses as clear as
you can. Try using a saline rinse or a neti pot, as these will help you reduce
your risk of developing a sinus infection — all that fluid in your sinuses
makes the perfect environment for bacteria.
Take some time off work if you need to so you can rest. At the
very least, try to catch a nap during the day.
Be sure to see your doctor if you experience any of the more
serious symptoms outlined in the When to Seek Help section. Otherwise, get some
rest, take a steamy shower, and try some more chicken soup and hot tea with
During this period, your body will likely be gaining the upper
hand against the infection. You may notice that you are starting to feel a
little stronger, or that some of your symptoms are easing up just a bit.
If you’re still fighting with congestion and a sore throat at
this stage, don’t panic. Continue to drink lots of fluids and rest when you
can. Your body may require more time to beat the virus if you tried to
“power through” your cold and failed to get enough rest.
Day 10 and Beyond
If you’re not feeling better by day 10, you definitely should be
by day 14. You may have a few lingering symptoms, like a runny nose or a tickle
in your throat. Overall, however, you should be feeling stronger.
When to Seek Help
See your doctor if you’ve had the cold for three weeks and
you’re still suffering from congestion or a sore throat. Something else may be
going on if you’re still hoarse, have enlarged lymph nodes that are still irritated,
or have excessive fatigue.
For example, if you’re still suffering from itchy eyes and nasal
congestion, you may have allergies. Nasal congestion or colored discharge, a
sore throat, pressure and pain around the eyes and forehead, and fatigue may
indicate a sinus infection.
Colds can also worsen other medical conditions like asthma,
congestive heart failure, and kidney disorders. Get medical help right away if
you experience trouble breathing, a rapid heartbeat, feeling faint, or other
You also may be in danger of falling victim to a second
infection at this point. Your body is still recovering from the last fight, so
be sure to continue washing your hands and disinfecting surfaces around you to
reduce your risk of catching another virus. Caution at this stage will help
ensure that you get all the way better.
Sometimes what seems like a cold can develop into something more
serious. Check with your doctor right away if you experience any of these more
- fever of 101°F or higher for more than 24 hours
- fever accompanied by a rash, severe headaches, confusion, severe
back or abdominal pain, or painful urination
- coughing or sneezing mucus that is green, brown, or bloody
- shortness of breath, chest pain, wheezing, or difficulty
- tender and painful sinuses
- white or yellow spots in your throat
- severe headaches with blurred vision, dizziness, and/or nausea
- pain or discharge from your ears
- persistent pain in the abdomen
- profuse sweating, shaking, or chills
All of these symptoms may signal the presence of another
infection or other medical issue. If you experience any of these while you’re
trying to self-treat a cold, be sure to see your doctor right away.
Cold vs. Flu
If you experience a faster onset of symptoms, you may have the
flu instead of a cold. For example, you may feel significantly worse within
three to four hours if you have the flu.
Flu-like symptoms may include a painful sore throat, a deep
cough, extreme fatigue, and a sudden fever. Usually these can be treated at
home. However, pregnant women, children, older adults, and those with pre-existing
medical conditions should get medical care as soon as possible. They are at a
higher risk for serious flu-related complications.