Prevailing 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 (CDC), colds are caused by viruses, which cannot be killed with antibiotics. In fact, taking antibiotics when you have a virus may do more harm than good, and may actually increase your risk of getting an infection later that will resist antibiotic treatment. (CDC, 2012)
A typical cold will last only 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, and when to seek medical care, or try other treatments?
What Is 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 mild, 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 help.
The First Day
Symptoms of the common cold usually begin two to three days after infection, so by the time you start feeling it, you've probably been contagious for a couple days.
On day one, you're likely to experience a little tickle in the back of your throat, and find yourself reaching for the 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 with the flu, but during the first day it can be hard to tell.
Treating your symptoms as soon as you suspect an infection may help you beat it faster than you normally would. According to the Mayo Clinic, recent studies indicate that zinc may be beneficial in shortening the duration of colds. Starting as early as possible seems to increase your odds of experiencing benefits. (Mayo Clinic, 2012)
Additionally, research published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that adults who took zinc either as a lozenge, pill, or syrup at the onset of their cold their symptoms ended two days sooner than adults who didn't take it. (Science & Johnstone, et al, 2012)
In addition to taking zinc, try these at-home remedies:
- Drink plenty of fluids
- Suck on cough drops or lozenges medicated with menthol or camphor
- Use a humidifier or vaporizer 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. Decongestants may also help, particularly those that contain pseudoephedrine
- Get plenty of rest
You may even want to consider taking a half or full day off of work to go 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.
On the second and third days, you're likely to experience a worsening of symptoms, such as a regular runny nose and sore throat. You may also have a low-grade fever (less than 102 degrees F). If your at-home remedies are working, you may not feel much different than you did on day one. Keep up with fluids, rest, and zinc and you may get away with only a few sniffles and coughs.
This is usually the time when you're 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:
- Mothers 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. (Mayo Clinic, 2012)
- Make sure you get plenty of rest. Take naps if you feel like it.
- To 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.
- To encourage rest, prop yourself up with pillows.
- Antihistamines may provide relief from cough, sneezing, watery eyes, and nasal discharge.
- Use a vaporizer or humidifier in your room to loosen congestion and help you sleep.
- For a cough, try an over-the-counter expectorant.
- Try hot beverages with honey to soothe throat pain, or gargle with warm salt water.
- Pain 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.
- To cool down a fever, place a cool washcloth on your forehead or behind your neck, or take a lukewarm shower or bath.
- If you feel well enough to exercise, it may help boost your immune system, but don't overdo it. Intense activity can reduce your resistance to the infection, so 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 blocked up, and you may find you're going through box after box of tissues. The 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 marshals 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.
If you experience any of the more serious symptoms noted above, be sure to see your doctor. Otherwise, get some rest, take a steamy shower, and try some more chicken soup and hot tea with honey.
During this period, your body will likely be gaining the upper hand against the infection. You may notice that you start to feel a little stronger, or that some of your symptoms start to ease 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. If you tried to "power through" your cold and failed to get enough rest, your body may need longer to beat the virus.
Day 10 On
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
If you've had the cold for three weeks and you're still suffering from congestion or a sore throat, see your doctor. If you're still hoarse, have enlarged lymph nodes that are still irritated, or have excessive fatigue, something else may be going on.
For example, if you're still suffering from itchy eyes and nasal congestion, you may have allergies. Nasal congestion, 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. If you experience trouble breathing, a rapid heartbeat, or other severe symptoms, get medical help right away.
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. No matter the day, if you experience any of these more serious symptoms, check with your doctor right away:
- Fever of 101 degrees or higher for more than two days.
- 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, severe chest pain, or difficulty swallowing.
- Tender and painful sinuses.
- White or yellow spots in your throat.
- Severe headaches with blurred vision, dizziness, and/or nausea or vomiting.
- 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 for 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, if you feel significantly worse within three to four hours, get home to rest as soon as you can.
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. Pregnant women, children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing medical conditions, however, should get medical care as soon as possible, as they are at a higher risk for serious flu-related complications.