Managing Colds for Adults

Time to Read: About 3 minutes

This information explains how you can manage your cold symptoms.

Colds are infections that are usually caused by a virus. Colds are also known as upper respiratory infections.

Signs and Symptoms of Colds

You may have 1 or more of the following signs of a cold:

  • A fever of 100.4° F (38° C) or higher
  • Sneezing
  • A stuffy or runny nose. After 2 to 3 days, your mucus may change to a white, yellow, or green color.
  • Sore throat
  • Cough or chest tightness
  • Post-nasal drip (mucus dripping down your throat)
  • Mild headache
  • Mild body aches

Difference between colds and flu

It can be hard to tell the difference between having a cold and having the flu because the symptoms are similar.

Common symptoms of the flu include a high fever, cough, and headache or body aches. Having the flu doesn’t always cause a sore throat and a runny nose. Symptoms of the flu can also start quickly, while cold symptoms begin more slowly.


If you think you have the flu, see your healthcare provider. They can diagnose the flu and prescribe you antiviral medications to help.

Treatment for Colds

Since most colds are caused by a virus, taking antibiotics won’t help you feel better. Antibiotics only treat infections that are caused by bacteria such as strep throat or whooping cough.

A good way to treat a cold is by getting enough rest. Adults should get about 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.

It’s also important to drink enough liquids. Try to drink 8 (8-ounce) glasses of non-caffeinated liquids (such as water or herbal tea) every day.

Managing Cold Symptoms

Sore throat

To help a sore throat, you can:

  • Suck on ice chips, popsicles, or lozenges (such as Halls®, Luden’s®, or Ricola®)
  • Use a sore throat numbing spray containing benzocaine or phenol (such as Cepacol® or Chloraseptic®).
  • Drink warm liquids, such as tea or soups.
  • Gargle with salt water.
    • To make the gargling solution, mix 1 tablespoon of salt with 8 ounces of warm water. Gargle as needed then spit out the solution. Don’t swallow it.

Cough or chest tightness

To help with a cough or tightness in your chest, you can:

  • Add more humidity to the air. To do this, use a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer in the rooms where you spend most of your time.
    • You can also breathe in steam from a hot shower, bath, or bowl of hot water.
  • Suck on lozenges or hard candies.
  • Add pasteurized (not raw) honey to a warm beverage such as tea.

Stuffy nose or sinus pain or pressure

To help relieve a stuffy nose, sinus pain, or pressure, you can:

  • Put a warm compress over your nose and forehead.
  • Use an over the counter decongestant medication, such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine (Sudafed®, Mucinex®) If you have a heart condition, or if you take prescription medications, ask your pharmacist if it’s safe to take cold medications.
  • Use saline nasal spray.
  • Add more humidity to the air. You can breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water or shower.

Ear pain

If you have ear pain, you can put a warm, moist cloth over the ear that hurts. If pain is very bad or lasts more than 2 days, call your healthcare provider.

Taking medication

You can also take over-the-counter cough and cold medications (such as DayQuilTM, Theraflu®). They won’t cure your cold or help you get better faster, but they can help with your symptoms. Make sure to follow the instructions on the label and talk to your doctor or pharmacist about all the medications that you’re taking before you take a cold medication.

Don’t take more than 1 medication that has acetaminophen (Tylenol®) in it. Acetaminophen is a pain reliever that is also found in many cold medications, including DayQuil and Theraflu. Too much acetaminophen can cause liver damage.

Don’t take more than 1,000 milligrams (mg) of acetaminophen at 1 time or more than 4,000 mg a day. Talk with your doctor or pharmacist before taking medication with acetaminophen if you have liver disease or if you’re 65 or older.


Call Your Healthcare Provider if You:

  • Have a fever of 100.4º F (38º C) or higher and have shaking chills, a loss of appetite (not feeling hungry), or trouble breathing
  • Have a lung disease, such as emphysema or asthma, and a fever higher than 100.4°F (38° C)
  • Have a cough that lasts longer than 10 days
  • Have chest pain when you cough
  • Have trouble breathing
  • Cough up blood
  • Have a cold and a weakened immune system
  • Have a cold and are getting chemotherapy

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Last Updated

Thursday, August 19, 2021