Winter’s just around the corner, which means the cold season is officially in full swing. According to the CDC, adults have an average of two to three colds each year while children can have even more.
And while you might be familiar with the symptoms and effects of the common cold, there’s a chance you’re unaware of how this upper respiratory virus progresses, how to treat it, and even when to call the doctor.
While you can’t cure the common cold, there’s a lot to be said for prevention and self-care tips while your body works to rid itself of the virus.
If you’re concerned you might be at risk of catching it or you currently have a cold, we’ve got you covered. We’ve compiled an overview of everything from stages and symptoms to recovery tips, below.
The tickle of an impending cold is all too familiar and can elicit the desperate need to down glasses of orange juice and use copious amounts of hand sanitizer. Unfortunately, if your throat is already tingling or scratchy, it’s likely one of the 200 strains of the common cold virus — most commonly the rhinovirus — has already settled in for the next 7 to 10 days.
The most common symptoms to look out for during this stage are:
- tingling or scratchy throat
- body aches
- tiredness or fatigue
Dr. Doug Nunamaker, a family practice physician and chief medical officer for Atlas MD, explains that it’s in these first days of a cold that most people don’t do enough to care for their symptoms.
Though there are a number of over-the-counter (OTC) treatments and remedies that can ease the symptoms of a cold during this stage, Nunamaker also suggests reaching for one of the most common dishes for people with a cold or flu: chicken noodle soup.
“It’s easy on the stomach, soothes the throat, [and] provides fluid for hydration,” he explains. If you have a fever or are sweating, he adds, chicken soup can also help replenish some of the salt your body might lose.
In terms of contagion levels, Nunamaker says your cold is contagious if you present “active symptoms.” So, the tickle in your throat, runny nose, body aches, and even low-grade fever mean you’re at risk of spreading the bug to everyone around you.
- Take decongestants and cough syrup but avoid mixing combination medications (e.g., don’t take ibuprofen separately if it’s also included in your cold medicine).
- Get plenty of sleep and rest.
- Stay hydrated.
Ways to avoid spreading the cold virus while you’re still contagious:
- Avoid public contact if at all possible by staying home from work and school.
- Avoid physical contact with other people, such as kissing or shaking hands.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water.
- Fully cover your cough and sneeze in your elbow or a tissue. Immediately dispose of the tissue and wash your hands.
This is when the virus is at its peak intensity. You might find during this time that everything hurts and your face feels like a running faucet. You may even experience a fever, which can be alarming. Because you have a virus, however, you have a compromised immune system. A fever, explains Nunamaker, is your body’s way of defending your immune system.
“[A fever is] nature’s antibiotic. Let it ride,” he explains.
Nunamaker adds that a fever isn’t a concern until it’s 102 to 103°F (38 to 39°C). In fact, up to 100.4°F (38°C), you’re considered to have an “elevated temperature,” not a fever.
Fevers with a cold can be easily confused with the flu. You should remember that the flu has radically different, and far more severe symptoms, which come on hard, fast, and usually include a headache.
The most common symptoms to look out for during this stage of a cold are:
- sore throat
- congestion or runny nose
- chills or low-grade fever
As was the case in stage 1, if your symptoms are still active, you’re still contagious. During this time, you should continue to be mindful about being around others and avoid physical interactions.
- Avoid smoking as it paralyzes the cilia in the lungs and takes longer to heal.
- Avoid asking your doctor for an antibiotic. This is a viral infection and an antibiotic will not help. In fact, it could make things worse.
- Use a cough suppressant if you find it difficult to sleep.
- Take ibuprofen for body aches.
- Get your daily amount of vitamin C (1 to 2 grams per day) via fresh fruit or supplements.
- Gargle with salt water.
- Use a humidifier or take a steam bath or shower.
- Use Chloraseptic or Cepacol lozenges. The benzocaine is a topical numbing agent and can help soothe sore throats.
While your body fights the cold virus, it’s vital to stay hydrated throughout all three stages of your cold.
A cold typically wraps up around day 10. There are, of course, exceptions. If you’re still feeling the effects, your symptoms worsen, or your fever increases then it’s time to re-evaluate and think about a different course of treatment.
When should I call a doctor?
- While it’s tempting to call the doctor when you’re feeling crummy for a couple of days, it’s best to avoid doing so until after your symptoms have persisted for longer than 10. Call a doctor if your symptoms worsen after this time.
Some people might also experience what’s known as the post-infectious cough, which is a nagging cough that can last an average of 18 days after your cold subsides. If, however, all your other symptoms have ended, you can consider yourself free and clear.
If the other “active” symptoms are still present, you’re still contagious and should continue to follow the tips to prevent spreading the virus.
The most common symptoms to look out for during this stage are the following:
- runny nose
- Continue to cover your cough with your sleeve or tissue and wash your hands.
- Continue taking an OTC ibuprofen, decongestant, cough suppressant, or antihistamine, as needed.
When it comes to a cold, you’ve got to accept that it’s happening and ride it out. The very best thing you can do is take actions to prevent a cold by:
- washing your hands frequently with soap and water
- avoiding any unnecessary physical contact where you could contract the virus
- staying hydrated and well rested
Finally, be mindful of how your health affects other people, especially those with compromised immune systems, and stay home when you’re contagious.
Brandi Koskie is the founder of Banter Strategy, where she serves as a content strategist and health journalist for dynamic clients. She’s got a wanderlust spirit, believes in the power of kindness, and works and plays in the foothills of Denver with her family.