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5 Tips to Treat the Common Cold

The cold and flu season is upon us. Learn what the common cold really is, how it spreads, what you can do to prevent it, and how to treat it once you are sick. 

By
Sanaz Majd, MD
November 21, 2013
Episode #137

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Prevention of the Common Cold

The best way to manage a cold is really to prevent acquiring one in the first place.  It’s not easy though, because it requires everyone who gets sick to be diligent about prevention of transfer to others by:

  1. Eradicating viral particles:  Wash your hands frequently.  If soap and water are not readily available, carry an antibacterial hand cleanser.  If you share work stations at work, cleanse the keyboard, mouse, and desk.
  2. Preventing viral hand particles:  Don't touch your face.  That’s how you get the virus on your hands and eventually spread it to others by direct contact or via middle-men objects such as doorknobs or elevator buttons.
  3. Preventing viral air droplets:  If you are sick, the best way to prevent air-transfer is to wear a mask.  Otherwise, when coughing or sneezing, either:
  • cough into a tissue, throw that tissue away, and immediately wash your hands.
  • if a clean tissue is not readily available, cough or sneeze into your shirt sleeve, not into the air.

5 Tips to Treat the Common Cold

Once you are unfortunate enough to catch a virus, however, it’s really too late.  There’s no cure and so it must play out its course.  Antibiotics don’t cure viruses, only bacteria - this is another pervasive myth that I dispel for my patients every year. 

The typical common cold virus takes about 7-10 days to resolve.  The first 4-5 days are the worst, and our symptoms tend to worsen with each of those days.  After the peak, however, symptoms start to improve.  By days 7-10, most patients feel much better.  If you don’t, that’s the time to typically visit your doctor.

Although you can't cure yourself of the cold virus, you can, however, treat your cold symptoms. Try some of these comfort measures to help you get through those tough days. But please make sure you ask your doctor if these measures are safe for you, personally, before you launch into a regimen: 

  1. For a stuffy nose.....use decongestants. Some examples are phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine.  Pseudoephedrine works better to open up the nasal passages, but does have greater side effects for people who can’t tolerate decongestants.  There’s also a long-acting 12-hour pseudoephedrine you can ask your pharmacist about.  I tell my patients to try using a vaporizer or humidifier as well. It's similar to a hot shower effect and can help open up the nasal passages. This, combined with sipping on hot liquids all day long can make you feel a lot better.
  2. For a runny nose.....use antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine for nights (it tends to make you sleepy), and loratadine, cetirizine, or fexofenadine for the daytime to avoid drowsiness.
  3. For a fever, or body aches.....use ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatories.  Otherwise, acetaminophen is a good second option.
  4. For a sore throat.....use sugar-free lozenges, throat sprays, or salt-water gargles can soothe a scratchy throat.
  5. For a cough.....use cough syrup. The cough associated with the common cold typically occurs secondary to a post-nasal drip from all that nasal drainage in the back of the throat. That’s why some patients actually become awakened in the middle of the night with a cough, because gravity simply pulls that drainage from the back of your nose down into your throat, irritates the throat, and causes a cough.  Very pretty picture I’m painting, I know.  This cough can linger for weeks past a cold.  Once your nose dries up, this will go away, too.  Until then, you can try over-the-counter cough syrups, guaifenesin to break up the mucus, and antihistamines to dry up the drainage. 

If you are sick, please be cognizant of others – do whatever you can to prevent others from getting sick, too.  That includes staying home.  And if you are around sick people, wash your hands frequently, don’t touch your face, and wear a mask if possible to prevent from acquiring the virus through the air.

What's your favorite common cold remedy? Share it with us on the House Call Doctor’s Facebook and Twitter pages, where you can read more of my health-related tips!

Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only.  This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider.  Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

Doctor visit and other images, courtesy of Shutterstock.

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