Treating Colds and Flu

Colds and flu are caused by viruses. Many symptoms are similar, and treatments for both are the same. Antibiotics won't help with a cold or the flu because they aren't effective against viruses.



Colds are caused by viruses that are easily spread through the air and on surfaces, such as drinking glasses and doorknobs. Cold symptoms include:

Cold symptoms can last 1 to 2 weeks. Try the home treatments listed below to ease your symptoms.


The flu (or influenza) is caused by a virus that infects the bronchial tubes and lungs. Flu symptoms include those of a cold, as well as the following:

You might also have abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea. Flu symptoms can last up to 10 days. As with colds, flu symptoms can be relieved with home treatment.

Home Treatments

Here are some things you can do at home to feel better when you have a cold or the flu:

Note: Do not give aspirin to a child or youth younger than 20 years. It has been linked to a rare but serious disease called Reye syndrome.

If you have the following symptoms, here are some home care tips.

Fever: Wear light clothing. Bundling up can make your fever worse.

Congestion: Including plugged ears, nose, or head:

Note: Don't use a decongestant nasal spray (like Afrin) for more than 3 days. Longer use can make your symptoms worse.

We don't recommend a bulb syringe for rinsing nasal passages, as bacteria can be left in the bulb even after rinsing. If you use a neti pot, it must be cleaned thoroughly every time you use it.

To make saline solution, dissolve 1/4 teaspoon of salt and a pinch of baking soda in 1 cup of warm water.

Cough or sore throat

If you don't feel better in 2 weeks, call your doctor's office.

Reduce Your Risk of Getting the Cold or Flu

When to Call Your Doctor

If you have any of the following symptoms, call your doctor's office:

The flu can lead to serious illness for those who have chronic health problems. If you have a chronic illness and are concerned about cold or flu symptoms, call your doctor's office.

Clinical review by Travis Abbott, MD
Group Health
Reviewed 03/01/2014