Do’s and don’ts of having a cold

The common cold can be caused by several viruses, but the symptoms are the same: sore throat, runny nose, malaise, cough, a low-grade fever, and body aches.  If you’re an adult, you’re likely to get between two and four colds a year.  Your kids are likely to get colds more frequently. In fact, kids under two years old typically get eight to ten colds a year! 

Since colds are one of the most common infections our patients experience, it’s important to understand the do’s and don’ts of having a common cold.


Get plenty of rest. 

Not only does quality sleep help you avoid getting sick; it also helps you heal faster if you do become ill.  Why?  Because during sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, which help your body fight infections.  Getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep (more for children) while you have a cold can give your body’s immune system the chance to fight the infection and help you feel better faster.

Drink a lot of fluids.

When you have a cold, your body increases mucus production in your nose and respiratory tract to literally drown the viral particles that are making you sick.  Also, your body often raises the temperature to make the environment too hot for viruses to replicate (which is why you sometimes run a low-grade fever when you have a cold).

So, while you’re sick, it’s important to replace the fluid you’re losing from increased mucus production and from accelerated water evaporation off your skin’s surface by drinking plenty of fluids.

Eat chicken noodle soup.

It’s been scientifically proven that people who eat chicken noodle soup when they’re sick have less severe symptoms and recover faster than those who don’t.  The reason chicken noodle soup is effective is that it offers balanced nutrition (carbohydrates, protein, and vegetables) when you have a diminished appetite.  The warm broth helps break up mucus and keeps you hydrated.  Also, chicken contains an amino acid called cysteine, which reduces inflammation in your respiratory tract and helps break down mucus faster.

Take effective over-the-counter medicines.

There are several over-the-counter medicines that can help alleviate cold symptoms.  NSAIDs and acetaminophens can help reduce pain and fever.  And combining an antihistamine with a decongestant called pseudoephedrine can help alleviate congestion. 

Note: If you’re pregnant or have an underlying medical condition, make sure you consult with a healthcare provider before taking any medication.

Know when to seek medical attention.

The common cold should resolve within 7-10 days.  If you’ve been sick longer than 10 days, or if you have sinus pain, a worsening cough, or a fever (a temperature above 100.4 F), these can indicate that you have a more serious viral infection, or that you’re developing a bacterial infection.  It’s important to watch out for these symptoms and seek medical attention if you develop them.


Take antibiotics.

Since antibiotics only kill bacteria, they have no effect on the viruses that cause the common cold.  In addition, antibiotics can have potentially serious side effects.  And taking an antibiotic when you don’t need one can lead to antibiotic resistance -- which means when you do have a bacterial infection that requires an antibiotic, it’s less likely to be effective.

Feed a cold (or starve a fever!)

The adage “Feed a cold, starve a fever” has been around since the 1500s, when physicians speculated that fasting during a fever gave the infection less fuel, thereby reducing body temperature and eliminating the infection.  Physicians also believed that eating more during non-febrile illnesses, like the common cold, gave your body more fuel to fight the infection.

While it’s important to make sure you’re getting adequate nutrition and oral fluids while you have a cold, overeating doesn’t help your body fight the infection any faster.  And frequent overeating can lead to other complications, like diabetes and obesity.

Take ineffective medicines.

Lots of over-the-counter medications advertise that they’re effective against cold symptoms.  But research shows that many of these medications are ineffective.  For instance, phenylephrine was shown to work no better than a placebo in scientific studies.  It’s important to be informed about what does and doesn’t work to make sure you make the most effective treatments possible.

Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant