Managing Colds for Adults

This information explains how you can manage your cold symptoms.

Colds are infections that are usually caused by a virus. Another name for colds is upper respiratory infection.

Symptoms of Colds

You may have 1 or more of the following symptoms:

  • A temperature 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.
  • A sore throat
  • A cough
  • Post-nasal drip (mucus dripping down your throat)
  • A mild headache
  • Mild body aches

Difference in symptoms between colds and flu

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

Common symptoms of the flu include a high temperature, cough, and headache or body aches. Having a sore throat and a runny nose is not as common with the flu. Symptoms of the flu can also start suddenly, while cold symptoms begin more slowly.

If you think you have the flu, see your doctor. They can diagnose the flu and prescribe medication. If you have the flu, taking antiviral medications may be helpful.

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Treating Colds

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

Instead, treat a cold by  getting enough rest. Adults should get about 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.

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

Managing cold symptoms

Cough or chest tightness

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

  • Add more humidity to the air. You can 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.
  • Add pasteurized (not raw) honey to a warm beverage such as tea.

Sore throat

To soothe a sore throat, you can :

  • Suck on ice chips, popsicles, or lozenges (such as Halls®, Luden’s®, or Ricola®)
  • Use a sore throat 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 and then spit out the solution. Do not swallow it.  

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 oral decongestant, such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine (Sudafed®, Mucinex®) If you have a heart condition, or 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 severe 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 will not cure your cold or help you get well 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 the medications that you’re taking.

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

Do not take more than 1,000 milligrams (mg) of acetaminophen as a single dose 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 you are 65 or older.



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Call You Doctor or Nurse if You:

  • Have a temperature of 100.4º F (38º C) or higher and have shaking chills, a loss of appetite, or trouble breathing
  • Have a lung disease, such as emphysema or asthma, and a temperature 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 or are receiving chemotherapy
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