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Colds and Coughs

The common cold is a group of symptoms typically caused by one of more than a hundred viruses. The average adult experiences two to three colds per year, more in crowded classes and living conditions…sound familiar to college life?  A cold is usually not serious and lasts 7-10 days or even up to 2 weeks.


Inhaling viral particles: Droplets containing viral particles can be breathed, coughed, or sneezed into the air by a person with a cold. Breathing in these particles can infect you.

Colds are not caused by cold climates or being exposed to cold air. However, some specific types of virus are more seasonal in occurrence. 

Direct contact with hands: A cold virus may remain alive on the skin and capable of infecting another person for at least two hours. If a sick person shakes someone's hand and that individual then touches his or her eye, nose, or mouth, the virus can be transmitted and later infect that person.

Particles on surfaces: Some cold viruses can live for several hours on surfaces such as counter tops, door handles, cell phones or tablets and be spread to others who touch these surfaces.

SYMPTOMS --These usually include nasal congestion, runny nose, mild fever, and sneezing. A sore throat may be present on the first day but usually resolves quickly. A mild headache, a vague feeling of bodily discomfort, fatigue and a cough frequently add to the misery of a cold.  If a cough occurs, it generally develops about the fourth or fifth day of symptoms, typically when congestion and runny nose are resolving. Sinus pressure and ear discomfort and ear popping may occur.  Thick yellow or green nasal discharge or a productive cough especially in the morning may accompany a viral cold.  Colored mucous alone does not indicate the need for an antibiotic.


  • Avoid close contact with others known to have cold symptoms.
  • Don’t share drinks, food or eating utensils
  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 15 seconds.  When a sink is not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and rub it briskly over the entire surface of hands, fingers, and wrists until dry.
  • Avoid touching your mouth, nose or eyes.
  • Carry tissues for wiping a runny nose, throw it away after use then wash your hands or use hand sanitizer.
  • If you need to sneeze or cough and don’t have a tissue, tuck your face into the bend of your elbow.
  • Stay well rested & eat a healthy diet to give your immune system every opportunity to fight a cold.  This is hard to do as a college student.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Not directly related to colds but the best protection from the more serious influenza virus:  Get a flu vaccination every fall.  Flu shots are available at the IU Health Center each fall and we have many on-campus locations too.  SERIOUS COLD COMPLICATIONS: these require evaluation by a healthcare provider
  • Fever over 100° despite use of fever reducing medications such as Tylenol (Acetaminophen) or Advil/Motrin (Ibuprofen)
  • Sore throat lasting longer than three days or causing the inability to swallow
  • White spots on or near tonsils
  • Swollen glands
  • Significant pain in ears or facial bones
  • Shortness of breath or asthma
  • Relentless cough despite use of self-care measures or OTC meds
  • Constant chest pain

TREATMENTS —Treatments may reduce specific symptoms, but not shorten the duration of a cold.  Antibiotics do not help; antibiotics are only used to treat illnesses caused by bacteria, not viruses. The symptoms of a cold typically resolve over time with only the use of self-care measures.


  • Rest
  • Hydration with water, hot decaffeinated teas and other liquids but avoid alcohol
  • Warm salt water gargle made with 1/2 teaspoon salt in 8 ounces water
  • Hot chicken soup
  • Teaspoons of honey for cough
  • Stop smoking

MEDICATIONS— All over the counter, non-prescription medicines should be taken with consideration of your personal health history, medical conditions and use of other medications.  Carefully read the precautions and dosing instructions and consult with your healthcare provider or a pharmacist as needed.

Decongestants are medications that may improve nasal congestion and a cough due to post nasal drainage. Phenylephrine can be obtained off the shelf. Pseudoephedrine is carried behind the drugstore counter, so it must be requested.  Without a prescription, a government photo ID is required to purchase pseudoephedrine.

Antihistamines are medications that may help a runny nose, sneezing and a cough due to post nasal drainage. The combination of antihistamines and decongestants such as pseudoephedrine may be particularly helpful in controlling a cough due to post nasal drainage.  All antihistamines can cause side effects such as drying of the eyes, nose, and mouth. The newer antihistamines such as Claritin, Allegra and Zyrtec do not usually cause drowsiness. The older antihistamines such as Benadryl and Chlor-Trimeton can be sedating and must be used cautiously.

Nasal sprays come in several forms. They have minimal or unclear help for a cold.  Cromolyn Sodium (NasalCrom) may relieve a runny nose, cough due to post nasal drainage, and sneezing. Nasal saline may moisturize and promote drainage. Other nasal sprays such as oxymetazoline (Afrin) or phenylephrine (Neo-Synephrine) may give temporary relief of nasal congestion. However, these sprays should not be used for more than THREE days as using longer can cause rebound, or worsening congestion. Nasal steroids such as Nasonex or Flonase may be used for allergies or chronic sinusitis, not for the common cold.

Pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAID’s) can be used.  Examples of NSAID’s are ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve). These drugs may relieve a sore throat, head headache, mild pain or fever.  Take after a meal and with a full glass of water.

Cough suppressants are primarily dextromethorphan found in Delsym and other cough syrups with DM added to the end of the product name.  If the cough is caused by post nasal drainage they may have little effect.  The use of teaspoons of honey or honey in tea have been found to be more effective for cough due to upper respiratory congestion than most over the counter cough suppressants.

Expectorants are medications that thin mucous and have minimal or unclear benefit. The primary example is guaifenesin containing products such as Mucinex or Humibid. 

Lozenges such as benzocaine can provide temporary pain relief from sore throat. Menthol lozenges may temporarily help with nasal and sinus stuffiness. Zinc lozenges (Zicam) have uncertain benefit but may shorten duration of cold symptoms in the first 24 hours of illness symptoms.  Follow directions closely.  Avoid zinc products that are applied in the nose because they may cause loss of smell.

Alternative treatments including vitamin C and herbal products such as Echinacea, are advertised to treat or prevent the common cold. While none of these treatments are likely to cause harm, none has been proven to be effective in clinical trials; their use is not recommended.

Antibiotics - Antibiotics should not be used to treat an uncomplicated common cold or cough due to cold. As noted above, colds are caused by viruses. Antibiotics treat bacterial, not viral infections.


  • The average adult experiences two to three colds per year.
  • Symptoms of the common cold usually include nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing and cough from post nasal drainage. They typically last for 3 to 10 days but may last up to 2 weeks.
  • People with colds generally carry the cold virus on their hands, where it can infect another person for at least two hours. Some cold viruses can live on surfaces for several hours. Droplets containing viral particles can be breathed, coughed, or sneezed into the air.
  • There is no specific treatment and no cure for colds but self-care and over the counter medicines may reduce some symptoms.  Antibiotics are not useful.
  • Thorough hand washing and use of alcohol-based hand cleaner can prevent the spread of cold viruses.
  • Avoid sick people and stay home when you are sick.

Contact your IUHC healthcare provider or the Screening RN at 812-855-5001 if you have further questions or concerns that your symptoms may represent a more serious illness.