Colds & Coughs

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 to 10 days or even up to 2 weeks.

Prior to using homeopathic or conventional over-the-counter medications to treat a cold or cough, we recommend that you contact your health care provider or do further research regarding your personal underlying health history.


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


All over-the-counter, nonprescription 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 health care provider or a pharmacist as needed.


Decongestants are medications that may improve nasal congestion and a cough due to postnasal drainage. Phenylephrine can be obtained off the shelf. No research-based evidence has shown it to be any more effective than a placebo for relief of nasal sinus congestion or postnasal drainage. It is found commonly in many “daytime” cold relief meds including DayQuil and Sudafed PE. Pseudoephedrine, on the other hand, is carried behind the drugstore counter, so it must be requested. It can be obtained without a prescription, though a government photo ID is required to purchase pseudoephedrine. There is evidence to suggest its efficacy for nasal sinus congestion and postnasal drainage.


Pseudoephedrine is found in Sudogest, Mucinex-D, and allergy medications such as Claritin-D. Oral decongestants can cause rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, a rise in blood sugar, and possible sense of mild to moderate anxiety, so consult your health care provider if any of these conditions apply to your underlying health status.


Antihistamines are medications that may help a runny nose, sneezing, and a cough due to postnasal drainage. The combination of antihistamines and decongestants such as pseudoephedrine may be particularly helpful in controlling a cough due to postnasal 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, but may to some degree in certain individuals. The older antihistamines such as Benadryl and Chlor-Trimeton are likely to be sedating and must be used cautiously.

Nasal sprays

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 postnasal 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

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

Cough suppressants

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 postnasal 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 and postnasal drainage 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 if used 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

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 do not treat the common cold

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 postnasal 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.

Still have questions?

If you have further questions or concerns that your symptoms may represent a more serious illness, contact your health care provider or call the Student Health Center Medical Clinic at 812-855-4011.

Need a doctor’s note?

Does your professor require a doctor’s note to excuse you from class? Find out why the Student Health Center does not provide medical excuses, and learn how to explain this to your instructor.

Read our medical excuse policy