What to Do Next Time You Have a Cold

December 07, 2016

Board Certified Internist Dr. Nancy Simpkins breaks it down.

From Nancy: As the seasons change and fall is upon us, many people will begin to cough and sneeze, whether it’s your significant other, coworker or child. As we close all of the windows and spend more time indoors, the viruses multiply and spread easily person to person by respiratory droplets.

So is it a cold? Allergies? A sinus infection? And how do you know when you need to see a doctor?

The average adult will get between two and three colds a year. Many different viruses such as adenovirus, echovirus and rhinovirus can cause colds. When a certain strain of a virus gets into your body and your immune system has never seen that specific strain of virus, you will get sick. There are many mutations of viruses, which is why you continue to get colds and cannot build immunity to all cold viruses.

Here are a few things to keep in mind next time you get a cold.

You may need to see a doctor

A common cold—which includes a runny nose, cough, sneezing and a low-grade fever—lasts between 5-7 days. After that, if you are not better, it’s time to see your doctor. After a week, 90% of viruses have taken their natural course. If it’s been over a week, your doctor has to decide if it’s a bacterial sore throat (like strep throat), a sinus infection, bronchitis or something else. Let’s break it down. When your body develops a cold, your immune system works overtime to fight the virus that has entered your system. While your immune system is fighting the virus, bacteria can sneak into the system. So, as a result, a cold, strep throat, bacterial bronchitis or a sinus infection can occur. These all require antibiotics. An uncomplicated cold is a nuisance, but there is no high fever and no extended cough. Strep throat makes swallowing painful and it usually comes with a fever and swollen neck glands. A sinus infection causes facial pain, headache and painful eye movements.

Don’t hesitate to get medical advice

It can potentially be very dangerous not to see a doctor. Any untreated bacterial infection, like strep throat, that is untreated with antibiotics, can go on to damage the heart or the kidneys. In the past, before we had antibiotics, patients would develop rheumatic fever secondary to an untreated strep throat or would develop kidney failure. A sinus infection is dangerous because the sinuses are the entry to the brain, and an untreated sinus infection may eventually cause meningitis.

It might be allergies

Allergies have a few common symptoms such as sneezing, a runny nose with clear liquid discharge and an itchy throat and/or mouth. If you’re not sure whether it’s viral or allergic, you can try an over the counter anti-histamine such as Claritin, Allegra or Zyrtec. If the over the counter anti-histamine takes away your symptoms and you otherwise feel well, there should be no need for medical attention.

Antibiotics aren’t always the right move

Very frequently, patients will come into my office and want antibiotics for a clearly viral cold, but antibiotics do not work for viral infections. More importantly, people develop resistance to antibiotics the more that they take them. So if you take them unnecessarily then, when you need them, they might not work.