The prevailing wisdom is that when you have a cold, it's best to treat it at home. That’s because colds are caused by viruses, which can’t be treated with antibiotics. In fact, taking antibiotics when you have a viral infection may do more harm than good. It may actually increase your risk of getting an infection later that will be resistant to antibiotic treatment.
The common cold is an upper respiratory viral infection. It creates inflammation in the nose and throat. Symptoms include:
A typical cold will last about 10 days, with the body's immune system eventually getting rid of the infection on its own. During the life of the cold, it can seem to actually get worse. Sometimes, complications may arise that require a doctor's intervention.
So how do you know when to wait it out, when to seek medical care, or when to try other treatments? Here’s what to expect.
The first day
Symptoms of the common cold usually begin two to three days after initial infection. By the time you start feeling it, you've probably been contagious for two to three days.
On day one of symptoms, 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, the flu will cause more fatigue and body aches than a cold.
Treating your symptoms as soon as you think you have a cold may help you recover faster than you normally would. Zinc may help shorten the duration of a cold. Taking zinc supplements as early as possible seems to increase your recovery speed.
An analysis of several studies found that compared to adults who didn't take zinc, adults who took zinc as a lozenge, pill, or syrup at the beginning of their cold had their symptoms end two days earlier.
In addition to taking zinc, you can try these remedies at home:
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Suck on cough drops or lozenges medicated with menthol or camphor.
- Use a humidifier or vaporizer (or do hot steam showers) to clear sinus passages and ease sinus pressure.
- Avoid alcoholic or caffeinated beverages. They increase the risk of dehydration.
- Try saline nasal sprays to clear the nose and sinuses.
- Try decongestants, particularly those that contain pseudoephedrine.
- Get plenty of rest.
Consider taking one to two days off of work to stay home and sleep. Your body repairs best while it’s sleeping. Getting some extra rest early on may help your immune system better fight the virus. It also will protect your co-workers from catching the same virus.
On the second and third days, you're likely to have worse symptoms, such as a consistently runny nose and increased sore throat. You may also have a low-grade fever with a temperature less than 102°F. You may not feel much different than you did the first day if your at-home remedies are working. Keep up the fluids, rest, and zinc, and you may get away with only a few sniffles and coughs.
Typically, you’re most contagious during this period, 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:
Chicken soup: Mothers have used chicken soup for generations to help when family members feel ill. The warm liquid can soothe symptoms and it does seem to help relieve congestion by increasing the flow of mucus.
Rest: Make sure you get plenty of rest and take naps if you feel like it. Propping yourself up with pillows can lessen sinus congestion and allow you to sleep better.
Steam: 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. You can use a vaporizer or humidifier in your room to loosen congestion and help you sleep.
Throat soothers: Try hot beverages with honey to soothe throat pain, or gargle with warm salt water.
Antihistamines: Antihistamines may provide relief from cough, sneezing, watery eyes, and a runny nose.
Expectorants: For a cough, try an over-the-counter expectorant. An expectorant is a drug that brings up mucus and other material from the lungs.
Fever reducers: Pain relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help with fever and headaches. Do not give aspirin to children younger than 19 years. It has been associated with the risk of a rare but serious illness called Reye's syndrome.
Cool washcloth: To get 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.
Mild exercise: If you feel well enough to exercise, moving 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. All that fluid in your sinuses makes the perfect environment for bacteria. Try using a saline rinse or a neti pot. Flushing out the congestion will help you reduce your risk of developing a sinus infection.
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 have more serious symptoms. 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 have the upper hand in the fight against infection. You may notice that you are starting to feel a little stronger or that some of your symptoms are easing up.
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, though, you should be feeling stronger.
When to seek help
See your doctor if you've had the cold for three weeks and you still have 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 still have itchy eyes and nasal congestion, you may have allergies.
A sinus infection may be indicated by:
- nasal congestion or colored discharge
- a sore throat
- pressure and pain around the eyes and forehead
Colds can also worsen other medical conditions like asthma, congestive heart failure, and kidney disorders. Get medical help right away if you have breathing trouble, rapid heartbeat, faintness, or other severe symptoms.
You also may be in danger of 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. Taking caution at this stage will help ensure that you fully recover.
Sometimes, what seems like a cold can develop into something more serious. Check with your doctor right away if you have any of these more serious symptoms:
- 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 swallowing
- tender and painful sinuses
- white or yellow spots in your throat
- severe headaches with blurred vision, dizziness, 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 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. You may feel significantly worse within three to four hours if you have the flu.
Flu-like symptoms may include:
- painful sore throat
- deep cough
- extreme fatigue
- sudden fever
Usually these can be treated at home. However, pregnant women, children, older adults, and people with pre-existing medical conditions should get medical care as soon as possible. These people are at a higher risk for serious flu-related complications.