Winter cold nothing to sneeze at: Here's what to do if you catch it

Nov. 29, 2012, 11:56 a.m.

'Tis the season for the common cold, and if you don't take care of yourself, that sickness could linger for days, even weeks. (William Brawley/Flickr Creative Commons)

It starts off with a sore throat – within one or two days, you've got the runny nose, the low-grade fever, the cough and are probably feeling pretty crummy.

It's the winter cold, and it's in season. While symptoms usually resolve themselves within a week (if not sooner), it's still enough to make you miserable – and enough to keep you home from work and cut back that paycheck.

Dr. Daisy Dodd, a disease specialist for Kaiser Permanente Anaheim Medical Center, said in terms of prevention, constant hand-washing is the best bet. "If you don't have access to soap and water, at least on put a little bit of [hand sanitizer] quite often," she said.

But for many, catching a cold is inevitable. Those folks, said Dodd, should make sure to do the following:

Drink fluids. "Even if you don't feel like drinking water, drink a lot of fluids, because you're losing a lot of fluids in your secretions," she said. Besides water, orange juice is one of the best beverages for cold-sufferers. One of the worst: Alcohol.

Rest. "You should really go out of your way to get eight hours of sleep or more," said Dodd.

Eat like you normally would. "Make sure that you're eating," she said. "Many times your appetite will decrease. This is a time to go out of your way to make sure you're having your breakfast, lunch and dinner." Dodd said you can eat whatever you want, but that chicken soup in particular has a lot of nutrition.

Don't overmedicate. Dodd says patients should use acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) to ease the aches and pains, but to avoid taking cold medicine when possible. "Most of the time, physicians will say if you don't have to take anything – if you can live with your runny nose and your cough – it's better to do so," she said. "It's better to let your body run its course." But once the symptoms begin interfering with your functioning or sleep, take the medicine.

Alternative therapies may or may not work. Dodd says when it comes to dietary supplements like Airborne or herbal remedies like echinacea, "there's no scientific proof" that it'll work – but also no proof that it won't. Unless otherwise directed by a doctor, it's fine for adults – but these sorts of treatments should be skipped when it comes to kids. "There's no magic formula here," she added.

In this case, sharing is not caring. Keep washing your hands, and cough and sneeze into your elbow, not your hand.

Not following that advice, said Dodd, may mean a cold that grossly overstays its welcome – by days, or even weeks.

"Typically it lingers in adults because we don't take care of ourselves," she said. "We don't get the rest that we need, we don't eat very well and we don't do what we should do to help our bodies."

If ever there was a time to "pamper yourself," she added, it's when you're sick.

Depending on who catches it, the average cold lasts between seven and 10 days. But if, as you're starting to feel better, your symptoms suddenly start to get worse, that's when it's time to see a doctor.

"At that point, you might have developed what we call a superimposed infection," said Dodd – something that doctors may treat with antibiotics.

Others with underlying medical conditions like diabetes, AIDS or cancer should keep in touch with their doctors when they have a cold, since health providers will "probably ask to see them much sooner," said Dodd.

While the common cold is annoying, it's certainly not fatal – but the flu can be. Dodd noted that folks who come down with the flu won't have any doubt about what they've caught: It comes with a severe sore throat, an "awful body ache," upset stomach, respiratory problems and a "very high fever in comparison to the common cold."

"You can fight through a cold," she said. "You can't fight through influenza."

It's not too late to get a flu vaccination – OnCentral has more on that here, plus what to do if you get the flu.

Photo by William Brawley via Flickr Creative Commons.

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