Coughs and Colds Overview

Coughs and colds are extremely common and are typically caused by viruses. Viruses do not respond to antibiotics but get better on their own. Colds typically last 7-10 days. Common symptoms of the common cold include headache, stuffy nose, congestion, cough, fatigue, and low grade fever. Coughs and colds typically do not require a doctor’s visit. They are best treated with rest, fluids, and over-the-counter medications. A doctor’s visit may be needed if the cough or cold lasts more than 2 weeks, if there is a high fever over 101-102, if there is significant ear pain or sinus pain, if there is shortness of breath, if the patient is immune-compromised, or for an infant. In these cases a prescription medication may be needed. It is also possible that the cough or cold may not be caused by a virus but could be an allergy, sinusitis, strep throat, bronchitis, or pneumonia

Coughs and colds are spread through the air or through contact. Someone may sneeze or cough on you who has a cold. More commonly they can be spread through contact.  Someone with a cough or cold sneezes or coughs on their hands and then touches a doorknob. You then come around and touch the same doorknob and eventually catch the viral infection. Good and frequent hand washing is the best defense against getting a cough or cold.

Many people with coughs or colds caused by a virus come to the doctor wanting antibiotics. Because coughs and colds are typically viral infections, antibiotics will not help. Taking an antibiotic will not reduce the severity or the length of a viral infection. They also will not prevent a bacterial infection from setting in. Taking antibiotics for viral illnesses not only doesn’t help but it can cause harm. When antibiotics are used inappropriately resistance to the antibiotic can develop. Then when a you do have a bacterial infection the antibiotic may not work for the new infection. Antibiotics also have potential side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, and yeast infections.

The best treatment for a viral cough or cold is rest. Fluids are also important because fighting a viral infection can cause dehydration and fluid replacement will help you feel better and help your body fight the infection. There are many over-the-counter medications available for coughs and colds. Although these medications will not help you get better more quickly, they will help you to feel better while you recover.