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Does this describe your symptoms?

  • Runny or stuffy nose, nasal congestion
  • The nasal discharge may be clear, cloudy, yellow, or green

Other symptoms of a cold include:

  • Sneezing
  • Mild fever and muscle aches, feeling tired and sleepy, headache
  • Scratchy or sore throat
  • Postnasal drip, throat clearing, cough
  • Sometimes there is hoarseness, tearing eyes, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck

General Information

  • Colds are very common. The average adult experiences 3-4 colds each year.
  • Viruses cause colds, and no medicine or "shot" will cure an uncomplicated cold.
  • Colds are usually not serious. Most patients with colds do not need to be seen by a doctor. Rarely colds can lead to more serious illnesses such as: sinusitis, bronchitis, pneumonia, and otitis media. Elderly persons and individuals with a weakened immune system (due to chemotherapy, HIV positive, splenectomy, or the regular use of steroid medications) are at higher risk of developing these infectious complications.

If not, see these topics

When to Call Your Doctor

Call 911 Now (you may need an ambulance) If
  • Severe difficulty breathing (e.g., struggling for each breath, unable to speak)
  • Very weak (can't stand)
Call Your Doctor Now (night or day) If
  • You feel weak or very sick
  • Difficulty breathing, and is not from a blocked or stuffy nose
  • Fever of 103° F (39.4° C) or higher
  • Fever of 100.5° F (38.1° C) or higher and you:
    • Are over 60 years of age OR
    • Have diabetes mellitus or a weakened immune system (e.g., HIV positive, cancer chemotherapy, chronic steroid treatment, splenectomy) OR
    • Are bedridden (e.g., nursing home patient, stroke, chronic illness, recovering from surgery)
Call Your Doctor Within 24 Hours (between 9 am and 4 pm) If
  • You think you need to be seen
  • Earache or cloudy discharge from ear canal
  • Yellow or green eye discharge
  • Lots of yellow or green nasal discharge present for more than 3 days
  • Sinus pain or pressure persists for more than 24 hours despite nasal washes and pain medications
  • Fever present for more than 3 days
Call Your Doctor During Weekday Office Hours If
  • You have other questions or concerns
  • Fever returns after being gone for more than 24 hours
  • Nasal congestion (blocked nose) interferes with sleep after using nasal washes several times
  • Nasal discharge present for more than 10 days
Self Care at Home If
  • Mild cold and you don't think you need to be seen

General Instructions for Treating a Cold
  1. For a Runny Nose With Profuse Discharge: Blow the Nose.
    • Nasal mucus and discharge helps to wash viruses and bacteria out of the nose and sinuses.
    • Blowing the nose is all that is needed.
    • Apply petroleum jelly to the nasal openings to protect them from irritation (cleanse the skin first).
  2. For a Blocked Nose - Use Nasal Washes:
    • Step 1: Put 2-3 drops of warm water or saline in each nostril (Reason: To loosen up the dried mucus)
    • Step 2: Blow each nostril separately (Pinch one nostril shut while blowing your nose then repeat while pinching the other nostril).
    • Step 3. Repeat nose drops and blowing until discharge is clear.
    • Notes: Use a medicine dropper so you have control over how many drops you put in the nose. If you don't have one, you can use a dropper that came with ear drops, eye drops, or another medicine. You can purchase a dropper at a pharmacy. Do nasal washes four times a day or whenever you can't breathe through your nose. Another option instead of nasal washes is to take a hot shower. Breathe in the moist air through the nose and then blow each nostril.
    • How to Make Saline Nose Drops: Add 1/2 tsp of table salt to 8 oz (240 ml) of warm water.
  3. Hydration: Drink plenty of liquids (6-8 glasses of water daily). If the air in your home is dry, use a cool mist humidifier
  4. Cold Medicines: Most "cold" medicines are not helpful. They cannot remove dried mucus from the nose. Antihistamines are only helpful if you also have nasal allergies. Antibiotics are not helpful unless you develop an ear or sinus infection.
  5. Pain and Fever Medication:
    • For pain and fever relief, take acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
    • Acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol): The dose is 650 mg by mouth every 4 hours or 1000 mg by mouth every 6 hours. Maximum dose per day = 4000 mg.
    • Ibuprofen (e.g., Motrin, Advil): The dose is 400 mg by mouth every 6 hours or 600 mg by mouth every 8 hours.
    • People who are over 65 Years of age: Acetaminophen is generally considered safer than ibuprofen. Acetaminophen dosing interval should be increased to every 8 hours because of reduced liver metabolism. Maximum dose per day = 3000 mg.
    • CAUTION: Do not take ibuprofen if you have stomach problems, kidney disease, are pregnant, or have been told by your doctor to avoid this type of anti-inflammatory drug. Do not take ibuprofen for more than 7 days without consulting your doctor.
    • CAUTION: Do not take acetaminophen if you have liver disease.
    • Read the package instructions thoroughly on all medications that you take.
  6. Treatment For Associated Symptoms of Colds:
    • Sore throat: throat lozenges, hard candy or warm chicken broth.
    • Cough: use cough drops.
  7. Contagiousness: The cold virus is present in your nasal secretions. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough. Wash your hands frequently. You can return to work or school after the fever is gone and you feel well enough to participate in normal activities.
  8. Expected Course: Fever may last 2-3 days, nasal discharge 7-10 days, and cough up to 2-3 weeks.
  9. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Fever lasts more than 3 days
    • Nasal discharge lasts more than 10 days
    • Cough lasts more than 3 weeks
    • You become worse
Mineral and Vitamin and Herbal Supplements
  1. Zinc:
    • Some research studies have reported that zinc gluconate lozenges (i.e., Cold-Eeze) may reduce the duration and severity of cold symptoms.
    • Side Effects: Some people complain of nausea and a bad taste in their mouth when they take zinc.
  2. Vitamin C:
    • High doses of this vitamin has been promoted by a number of experts including Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling as a treatment for the common cold.
    • Research to date shows that Vitamin C has minimal (if any) effect on the duration or degree of cold symptoms. Thus, it cannot be recommended as a treatment.
    • Vitamin C is probably harmless in standard doses (less than 2 gms daily).
  3. Echinacea: There is no proven benefit of using this herbal remedy in treating or preventing the common cold. In fact, current research suggests that it does not help.
  4. Read the package instructions thoroughly on all supplements that you take.

And remember, contact your doctor if you develop any of the "Call Your Doctor" symptoms.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Author and Senior Reviewer: David A. Thompson, M.D.

Last Reviewed: 1/19/2009

Last Revised: 4/7/2008

Content Set: Adult HouseCalls Online

Portions Copyright 2000-2009 Self Care Decisions LLC; Copyright LMS, Inc.

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