UT University Health Services

Common Cold

Colds are caused by any of over 200 respiratory viruses that can cause symptoms in your nose, throat, ears, sinuses, and lungs. Colds are transmitted when you inhale droplets containing virus particles that have been coughed or sneezed into the air by an infected person. You can also catch a cold by touching your mouth, nose, or eyes after you've touched a virus-contaminated surface like door handles, computer keyboards, or money. Antibiotics aren't effective to treat cold viruses and should be prescribed only if a healthcare provider has diagnosed a "secondary" bacterial infection. A cold generally lasts 7 to 21 days.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Sinus drainage
  • Cough
  • Ear congestion
  • Hoarseness
  • Sore throat
  • Mild headache/sinus pressure
  • Swollen and/or sore neck glands
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Body aches
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

Self-Care

  • Rest as much as possible.
  • Drink 8 ounces of water, juice, or sport drinks each waking hour.
  • Use a humidifier to keep the air in your home (especially your bedroom) moist. Clean it frequently as instructed by the manufacturer.
  • Take an over-the-counter (OTC) analgesic like acetaminophen or ibuprofen for aches and fever.
  • For a stuffy nose, take an OTC oral decongestant, use an OTC decongestant nasal spray, or try OTC saline nasal spray/drops. You can make saline nasal drops at home by dissolving 1/4 teaspoon of table salt in 8 ounces of warm water. Sniff a couple of drops into each nostril or try a neti pot.
  • A cough is not bad in itself, but if it keeps you from sleeping or resting, take an OTC cough medicine.
  • Take an OTC antihistamine for nasal drainage, watery eyes, and/or sneezing.
Use medications only for the symptoms you have. Since many cold medications have ingredients to treat multiple symptoms, check the labels carefully or ask a pharmacist for help to make sure you don't take too much. For example, if you cough medicine contains acetaminophen, don't take separate acetaminophen tablets.

Over the Counter Medications for the Common Cold

  • Brand names listed as examples do not imply better quality over other brands. Generic equivalents may also exist.
  • Use only as directed on the package, unless your healthcare provider instructs you to do otherwise.
  • OTCs may interact with other medications or be potentially harmful if you have certain medical conditions. Talk to your pharmacist about options that are right for you.

Nasal Decongestant:
PILLS:
example: Mucinex® / DM® / D®
example: Pseudoephedrine® - ask your pharmacist
example: Phenylephrine®
SPRAYS:
Saline (example: Ocean® / Simply Saline®)
Decongestant (example: Afrin® Only 3 days max.)
RINSES:
example: Neti Pot®
example: Sinus Rinse®

Cough Suppressant:
Dextromethorphan (examples: Delsym®, Robitussin®)

Expectorant:
Guiafenesin (example: Mucinex®)

Cough Drops:
example: Halls®

Fever Reducers:
Acetaminophen 325 mg / 500mg (example: Tylenol®)
Ibuprofen (examples: Advil®, Motrin®)
Naproxen (example: Aleve®)


CALL THE UHS NURSE ADVICE LINE AT (512) 475-6877 (NURS) IF YOU EXPERIENCE ANY OF THE FOLLOWING:

  • Severe worsening of your cough with shaking chills and/or chest pain
  • Significant worsening of your symptoms over the course of one week
  • Fever of 100.5 degrees F (38 degrees C) or higher that doesn't come down after taking OTC analgesics or that lasts for more than 72 hours
  • Pain or tenderness in your face (over your sinuses) plus a thick nasal discharge that lasts more than one week or severe sinus pain or tenderness
  • Ear pain
  • The "worst headache of your life"
  • Breathing difficulty not caused by nasal congestion with minimal exertion, at rest, or that interferes with talking
Please note that nurses who staff the Nurse Advice Line cannot schedule appointments if you call outside the normal UHS hours of operation.

CALL 911 OR GO DIRECTLY TO AN EMERGENCY ROOM FOR EITHER OF THE FOLLOWING:

  • Unusual dark spots (much like bruises) of any size on your skin. This can be a sign of meningococcal disease which progresses rapidly, can be fatal, and requires immediate medical care.
  • Severe difficulty breathing.
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