UT University Health Services

Self-care for Symptoms of Respiratory Illnesses

Most symptoms of respiratory illnesses can be cared for at home. This page is for those whose healthcare provider has recommended self-care, perhaps in combination with self-isolation and an emphasis on taking steps to prevent spreading their illness to others.

Buy a thermometer. Knowing your temperature is essential to know whether fever reducing medications are appropriate and to communicate with your healthcare provider.

How to take care of yourself at home

  • Rest as much as possible.
  • Check your temperature twice daily. Call the UHS Nurse Advice Line if you develop a new fever of 100.4F (38C) or higher.
  • Drink eight 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 (pain reliever) like acetaminophen or ibuprofen for aches and fever. Don’t take aspirin.
  • For a stuffy nose, take an OTC oral decongestant, OTC decongestant nasal spray or OTC saline nasal spray/drops.
  • A cough, in and of itself, is not bad - 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.

How to prevent spreading your illness to others

  • Stay home except to get medical care, if you need it. Do not go to work, school or public areas. Avoid using public transportation, ride-sharing or taxis.
  • Separate yourself from other people in your home. Stay in a specific room and away from others in your home. If possible, use a separate bathroom. Avoid eating with other.
  • Wear a mask whenever you are around others. If you cannot wear a mask, because it interferes with your breathing, others in your home should wear them before coming near you.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw used tissues directly into a lined trash can. Don’t put them on a bedside table, bathroom counter, etc. that others might touch. Immediately wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol., rubbing your hands together until they feel dry.
  • Clean your hands often. Wash or sanitize your hands often as described above. Ask those in your household to do the same and to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth with their hands.
  • Do not share personal household items. These include dishes; drinking glasses, cups or bottles; eating utensils; towels; bedding, etc. Wash these items thoroughly with soap and hot water.  Take care not to share keyboards, books, phones and other thing that you have touched, unless they are cleaned.
  • Clean all “high-touch” surfaces at least once a day. These include counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones, keyboards, tablets, and bedside tables. Use a household cleaning spray or wipe, according to the label instructions.

Over-the-counter medications for upper respiratory symptoms

Use over-the-counter (OTC) medications only as directed on the package, unless your healthcare provider instructs you differently.

Use medications only for the symptoms you have. Many cold medications have ingredients to treat multiple symptoms. Read labels carefully. For example, if a cough medicine contains acetaminophen, do not take separate acetaminophen tablets. OTCs may interact with other medications or be potentially harmful if you have certain medical conditions.

Call your pharmacist with any questions to ask about options that are right for you.

Brand names listed as examples do not imply better quality over other brands. Generic equivalents may exist.

Stuffy nose

  • Pills. For example, Mucinex® / DM® / D®, Pseudoephedrine® (talk to your pharmacist) or Phenylephrine®
    Saline sprays. For example, Ocean® or Simply Saline®.
  • Decongestant spray. For example, Afrin®. Use no longer than three days.
    Rinses. For example, Neti Pot® or Sinus Rinse®

Coughing that interferes with sleep or rest

  • To suppress your cough, use pills or liquid containing dextromethorphan. For example, Delsym® or Robitussin®.
  • To help thin mucus so it is easier to cough up, use pills, liquids or packets with guaifenesin. For example, Mucinex®)
  • To soothe throat tickles caused by sinus drainage, use cough drops. For example, Halls®.

Fever and body ache reducers

  • Acetaminophen 325 mg / 500mg. For example, Tylenol®
  • Ibuprofen. For example, Advil® or Motrin®.
  • Naproxen. For example, Aleve®.

Nasal drainage, watery eyes and/or sneezing

Antihistamines such as:

  • Brompheniramine (For example, Dimetane)
  • Cetirizine (For example, Zyrtec)
  • Chlorpheniramine (for Example, Chlor-Trimeton)
  • Clemastine (For exampole, Tavist)
  • Diphenhydramine (For example, Benadryl)
  • Fexofenadine (For example, Allegra)
  • Loratadine (For example, Alavert, Claritin)

Sore throat

  • Soothing throat lozenges like Chloraseptic or Cepacol
  • Ibuprofen, acetaminophen or naproxen for pain

Call the UHS Nurse Advice Line (512-475-6877) if you experience any of the following:

  • Overall worsening of your symptoms
  • Breathing difficulty with minimal exertion or at rest that is not caused by nasal congestion
  • Onset of chest pain
  • Severe worsening of your cough with shaking chills
  • Increasing fever, despite OTC fever reducing medication
  • 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"
  • Marked worsening of your sore throat or difficulty swallowing your saliva

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 if you experience either of the following:

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

What to do before going to a healthcare facility for worsening symptoms:

Call your healthcare provider (the UHS Nurse Advice Line at 512-475-6877) before going in to the clinic. They will provide instructions on how to avoid transmitting the illness to others in the clinic.

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