The most common infectious disease in the United States has
probably made its way to your house once or twice this winter and
will likely show up again. That’s because most adults can expect
to catch between two and four colds, also known as upper
respiratory infections, per year. Children experience an average
of six to eight colds a year.
“Right now, you’d be hard pressed to go to work, school or even
the store and not see someone who is coughing, sniffling or
sneezing.,” said Glenn Nemec, M.D., a family physician with the
Monticello Clinic and member of the Minnesota Academy of Family
Physicians. “There are more than 100 viruses that cause colds and
unfortunately, the only thing you can do when you get one is treat
the symptoms while your body fights the virus.”
Dr. Nemec says although there has been a big push by a variety of
health organizations to educate the public about the proper use of
antibiotics, there are still patients who come in looking for
their family doctor to give them something to make the cold go
“Antibiotics kill bacteria. They don’t work on viruses. And
using them when they’re not really needed, causes bacteria to
become resistant to antibiotics that previously killed them,”
Nemec said. “People need to realize that the best way to get over
a cold is to slow down and give your body time to rest.”
While there is no cure for the common cold, there are things a
person can do to get relief from the symptoms, which include a
runny nose, congestion, sneezing, scratchy throat, slight fever
Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help relieve the aches and mild
fever that may accompany a cold. (You should not give anyone
under the age of 18 any product that contains aspirin because it
can lead to a rare, but serious illness called Reye’s syndrome.)
Another helpful hint is to make sure you keep your body hydrated
by drinking plenty of fluids. Dr. Nemec said it should be enough
so that your urine is clear. “That usually requires a lot more
fluid than most people think.” And hot liquid counts too. New
research suggests there may actually be some truth to the age-old
remedy of chicken soup. If nothing else, doctors think it helps
loosen up the mucus and make a person feel better.
For nasal congestion, suggestions include getting temporary
relief from hot steam, exercising moderately which can help clear
up a congested head or using saline nasal rinses. These rinses
are natural decongestants which help clear the nasal passages.
They can be purchased at your local drugstore.
Dr. Nemec says over-the-counter medicated nasal sprays also work,
but can be addicting and should never be used for more than three
For a runny nose, sneezing and post-nasal drip, Dr. Nemec
again suggests saline nasal rinses or taking an antihistamine.
He says antihistamines will help to dry nasal passages, but says
people should be aware that they can make you drowsy and interfere
with driving skills. He says these medications should only be
used if a person will be staying at home.
A cough caused by post-nasal drip can be lessened by
treating that particular symptom. Steam may also help a cough,
but only while you are in the steam, which means the relief
is short-lived. As for over-the-counter cough medicine, Dr. Nemec
believes these do very little. A study published in the January
2006 issue of the American College of Chest Physicians’ journal
finds that these syrups are ineffective in treating coughs due to
For sore throats, ibuprofen or acetaminophen is again
recommended. Zinc lozenges can also be used. “They have a
metallic taste, but will help decrease the pain,” Dr. Nemec said.
Chloraseptic spray is another option to help shorten the course of
an irritated throat.
While mild cold symptoms do not require a doctor visit, an
appointment with your family physician is in order if the fever is
over 102 degrees, the sore throat is severe, or the symptoms are
not starting to decrease by the seventh day. Your doctor will
check for more serious problems, including occasional
complications from colds such as sinus infections or bronchitis.
The Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians is a professional
association of approximately 3,000 family physicians, family
medicine residents and medical students organized to assist family
physicians in providing quality medical care in Minnesota. The MAFP
is the largest medical specialty organization in Minnesota and is a
state chapter of the American Academy of Family Physicians, the
largest medical specialty organization in the United States with
more than 93,000 members.