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.

Symptoms

Colds

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

  • Runny nose
  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Congestion

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

Flu

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:

  • Headache
  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Body aches

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:

  • Drink plenty of clear liquids, including water and juice. Drink 8 ounces every 2 hours.
  • If you smoke, quit. Stay away from others who smoke. It irritates your lungs and causes a dry, hacking cough. For help to quit smoking, see our resources to quit tobacco.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Take acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin (not for people younger than 20), or ibuprofen if you are uncomfortable.

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:

  • Drink warm, clear liquids such as tea, soup, or water. Spicy foods might also help relieve congestion.
  • Use a vaporizer or breathe moist, warm air from a hot shower.
  • Wash mucus out of your nasal passages with a saline (salt) solution.
  • Take decongestant pills or use a decongestant nasal spray.

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

  • Take cough syrup with guaifenesin and dextromethorphan, such as Robitussin DM.
  • Suck on a Popsicle, ice cubes, hard candy, or throat lozenges to soothe your throat.
  • Gargle 4 to 6 times a day with salt water (1/4 teaspoon salt in 1 cup warm water).

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

Reduce Your Risk of Getting the Cold or Flu

  • Wash your hands often. Keep them away from your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Eat healthy foods and get plenty of rest and physical activity.
  • If you smoke, quit. Tobacco users are more likely to catch a cold and more likely to have a cold develop into a more serious infection, such as pneumonia.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke. Exposure to secondhand smoke also makes you more likely to catch colds and flu.
  • Ask your doctor about getting a flu vaccine, recommended for everyone 6 months and older. This is especially important if you are 65 or older or have a chronic illness such as diabetes, asthma, emphysema, heart disease, kidney failure, cystic fibrosis, cancer, or an immune disorder.

When to Call Your Doctor

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

  • Chronic illness (diabetes, asthma, emphysema, heart disease, kidney failure) and any of the cold and flu symptoms.
  • Shaking chills.
  • Fever over 100.5° F for more than 3 days, or fever over 100.5° F that begins after the third day of a cold.
  • Rusty colored mucus from your lungs.
  • Runny nose that lasts for more than 3 weeks.
  • Severe headache or pain over cheekbones, or around and behind eyes.
  • Sore neck and glands with fever.
  • Cough that lasts more than 10 days.
  • Sore throat that lasts more than 7 days.
  • Pain when you swallow, plus swollen glands and fever.
  • Recent contact with someone who has strep throat.

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
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