Self Care Guide for the Common Cold

The common cold syndrome is caused by one of many viruses that enter through the nose and grow in the back of the throat. A typical cold starts with a sore throat rapidly followed by nasal congestion, possible low grade fever and finally coughing. The nasal discharge may start as clear mucus, but rapidly become thicker and colored over time.

The cold virus is killed by your immune system. Antibiotics are not effective in treating the common cold. Cold symptoms can last 1 to 3 weeks, sometimes longer. Treatment is limited to decreasing the symptoms until the cold goes away with time. Antibiotics only work on bacterial infections; the common cold is a viral infection. Therefore, antibiotics do not work on or cure the common cold.

Remember these important reasons for not taking antibiotics:

  • They just don’t help.
  • Beneficial bacteria are killed leading to yeast infections and diarrhea.
  • Bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. When you are sick with a bacterial infection, antibiotics may not be effective.
  • Antibiotics may cause side effects or allergic reactions (rash, vomiting, diarrhea).
  • Antibiotics can be expensive.


Treatment Recommendations

Following these basic guidelines can help ease your discomfort and speed your recovery.

  • Increase your fluid intake. Drinking more fluids will help you stay hydrated and better control your temperature.
  • Fluids such as water, sports drinks and clear broth soups are generally well tolerated.
  • Get plenty of rest. Stay in bed and rest as much as possible.
  • Wash your hands frequently. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers after coughing, sneezing and wiping your nose to reduce the spread of the virus.
  • Humidify the air by using a cool mist vaporizer, taking a steamy shower, hanging wet towels in the room, steam inhalations (face bowl), or placing a warm, moist towel over your face.
  • Do not smoke, and avoid second-hand smoke.
  • For FEVER, CHILLS AND BODY ACHES, use an NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory) medication, like ibuprofen (generic Motrin or Advil) or naproxen (generic Aleve). The major side effect of NSAIDs is irritation of the stomach, occasionally leading to gastrointestinal ulceration and bleeding. Stop the medication if you have stomach upset or pain. Consider taking acetaminophen (Tylenol), instead, for fever and pain if you have stomach upset. DO NOT TAKE ASPIRIN.
  • For STUFFY NOSE AND CONGESTION, use a decongestant. The only effective oral decongestant currently available is pseudoephedrine. You must ask the pharmacist for this medication (regulated because of illegal use to make methamphetamine), although no prescription is required. Decongestants purchased off the shelf contain phenylephrine and are much less effective. Oral decongestants may produce rapid heart rate, blood pressure elevation, nervous stimulation, and restlessness which may interfere with sleep. An alternative to the oral medication is a decongestant nose spray oxymetazoline hydrochloride (generic Afrin). This can rapidly relieve nasal obstruction. When the decongestant effect of the drug wears off, nasal obstruction rapidly returns. Therefore, this can be very effective, but limit use to 3 days (if used twice daily) or 5-6 nights (if only used at bedtime). Overuse by just a few days can result in "rebound" obstruction and mucosal damage.
  • For RUNNY NOSE, SNEEZING AND COUGH, try an antihistamine. The most effective antihistamines are first generation, although they tend to cause drowsiness. Examples of first generation antihistamines are brompheniramine (generic for DimeTapp), *chlorpheniramine (generic for Chlor-Trimeton and Singlet), *diphenhydramine (generic for Benadryl), and *doxylamine (generic for NyQuil and Alka-Seltzer Plus Night-Time Cold Medicine). The newer (non-sedating) antihistamines do not appear to have the same degree of effectiveness for treating colds. Examples are *Loratadine (Claritin), Fexofenadine (Allegra – prescription required), and *Certirizine (Zyrtec).
  • For COUGH, you can try a cough suppressant. Cough suppressants are natural narcotics, like codeine, and synthetic narcotics, like dextromethorphan (DM). They act on the brain to depress the cough reflex center. Their effectiveness in patients with chronic cough has been demonstrated in controlled studies but there is little published information on their effectiveness in coughs associated with colds. Cough suppressants can produce gastrointestinal discomfort but otherwise have few side effects. In normal healthy people with good cough reflexes, cough suppressants are safe. Drug interactions may occur with DM and certain antidepressants. If you are on an antidepressant, discuss this with your provider.
  • For SORE THROAT AND NASAL CONGESTION, consider using a saline rinse or throat lozenges.
    • Various nasal saline rinse kits are available commercially or you can make your own saline by mixing ½ teaspoon of salt and 8 ounces of warm water in a clean container.
      • For the nose: Place the above mixture in a reusable sinus rinse bottle or draw up into a nasal bulb syringe. The most convenient way to perform a sinus rinse is in the shower or over a sink.
      • For the throat: Swish and spit the above mixture.
    • Keeping a throat lozenge, cough drop, or hard candy in your mouth will stimulate your saliva and help soothe your throat.

* Available over-the-counter at the Health and Wellness Pharmacy


Call the advice nurse at 814-898-6217 if any of the following happens:

  • Temperature over 102 degrees F persists
  • Severe headache
  • Increased facial swelling
  • Very large neck glands
  • Painful joints
  • Skin rash
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty swallowing own saliva
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Blurred vision
  • Persistent greenish nasal discharge
  • Foul odor to breath

If nasal symptoms, facial pressure, and cough are no better or worse after 1–2 weeks, consider contacting the Health and Wellness Center to be evaluated for possible bacterial complications of the cold.