This article was written and clinically reviewed by Michelle Forcier, MD.
What are colds and flus?
Colds and flus are common viruses that mostly affect the upper respiratory tract. Upper respiratory infections usually include a runny nose or congestion, scratchy or sore throat, and/or a cough. Some viruses cause fatigue and make you feel like you’re dragging. Others cause head and body aches, making it hard to move around and do your daily tasks.
Most colds and flus go away by themselves over time. That means the primary treatment is what your clinician might call “supportive care,” or care at home. This type of at-home care helps reduce your discomfort with your symptoms.
What is “supportive care?”
Supportive care includes a lot of rest, fluids, and over-the-counter medications.
When our bodies fight infection, sleeping and taking it easy is important. Our bodies need more room and time to recover. Rest, rest, and rest some more!
Being dehydrated makes everyone feel worse. Drinking enough fluids to stay hydrated ensures your body has what it needs to fight off any infection. Fluids help regulate our blood pressure. Fluids also assist our kidneys in filtering and discarding waste when we pee. Having soft and regular bowel movements is also brought to you by fluids. The bottom line is that fluids help all the cells in our body work better.
If your head is throbbing or your throat is too sore to swallow, you can take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicines. These OTC pain relievers are also especially helpful when body aches make it challenging to get comfortable. It’s also helpful to be free from pain, so your body can rest better. Be sure to take these at the recommended doses listed on the bottle and at the appropriate intervals (more is not always better.)
OTC medication dosing tips
For adults, Tylenol (acetaminophen) dosing can be as high as 500-650 mg every 4 hours with a total daily dose to not exceed 4000 mg in 24 hours.
NSAIDs such as naproxen (Alleve) or ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) can also be used when you use Tylenol. Just be sure to space out the NSAIDs and Tylenol so you can take something every few hours.
NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are better for inflammation than Tylenol. For adults, Naproxen (Alleve) dosing is 250-500 mg every 12 hours. Ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) is dosed more frequently and does not last as long as naproxen. You can take ibuprofen 400 mg every 4-6 hours or up to 800 mg three times daily. However, don’t take ibuprofen and naproxen together.
When you take NSAIDs, it’s beneficial to have some sustenance in your stomach. Milk, crackers, or any snack with an NSAID can eliminate a queasy stomach. Tylenol, however, can be taken on an empty stomach.
How long will I be sick for?
Cold and flu viruses can take as long as a week to ten days to fully recover. Depending on the severity of your viral infection, you may not feel at your best for quite a while.
When should I consult my doctor?
Sometimes, you may need to get more care for a cold or flu virus. Colds and flus are different from more serious bacterial lung infections, which we call pneumonia. Pneumonias sometimes occur after a viral upper respiratory infection. So if your symptoms progress or get worse over many days, you should check in with your clinician.
Check your temperature and symptoms to tell if a cold may have progressed to pneumonia. New high fevers, with a temperature of 101 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, worsening cough, shortness of breath or more difficulty breathing are all possible signs of pneumonia.
For folks with asthma, be sure to be extra careful with upper respiratory infections. Make sure you’re following your Asthma Action Plan (if you have one, and hopefully, you do)! It is important to take your daily medications and utilize your albuterol rescue inhaler as needed.
Preventing cold and flu
The best way to deal with colds and flus is to avoid them. Avoiding viruses starts with some basic hygienic practices like:
- Hand washing. Wash your hands with soap and water, sing “Happy Birthday” twice, or count 15 to 30 seconds. Make sure you’re scrubbing well and even around your fingernails, especially before eating or any activities where you bring your hands to your mouth.
- Don’t touch your face! Keep hands away from your mouth, nose, and eyes to decrease your exposure to germs. Your mouth, nose, and eyes all have mucous membranes, which are entry points for viruses.
- Cough and sneeze into your elbow, to prevent respiratory droplets from spraying into the air to prevent transmission of colds and flus. Remind other people to also cover their mouths when they cough and sneeze.
- Stay well rested and well hydrated. Having energy increases your body’s ability to fight infection.
- Hone in on healthy nutrition. Eating enough whole foods, moving your body through exercise and avoiding vaping or smoking boosts your immunity. A healthy immune system also helps you resist infection.
- Decrease your role in spreading an infection. When you feel sick, stay home and do not expose other people. Wear a mask when you do have to leave the home. Make sure to wash your hands well after blowing your nose, coughing, or touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
What about antibiotics?
Antibiotics do not work for viral colds and flus. Let me repeat - antibiotics do not work on viruses. There are some viral infections that do respond to antiviral medications. There are tests and treatments for COVID, RSV, and influenza. You can ask your clinician if these will be helpful in your case, with your specific history, symptoms and signs of infection.
What about vaccines?
Immunizations are important, very, very important in both preventing infection and decreasing the spread of infections across communities. There are immunizations for COVID-19, RSV, and influenza. These can be very effective in preventing infection and reducing how badly you feel even if you get the infection.
Vaccines are generally very safe and effective for most people. Autism is not caused by vaccination, which has been repeatedly disproven. Know that vaccines do come with some side effects. Side effects usually include fatigue, aches, or a fever. These are signs that the vaccine is activating your immune system, and while uncomfortable, they are not dangerous and do not indicate a problem.
Getting a cold and flu is almost inevitable in the cooler winter months. But there are ways you can reduce your risk of getting an infection and decrease your discomfort and symptoms. It is also critically important to reduce the spread of infections in communities. So when you stay home, get under the covers, and read a book or stream your favorite movie, you are doing coworkers and friends a big favor and helping your community stay healthy.
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