How to Treat a Cold at Home

Coughs and colds happen, especially in winter. They are unpleasant and frustrating but they happen to all of us at some point. For babies, toddlers and preschoolers (especially those in daycare), it is normal to get 7-9 colds per year. Once kids are in school, they tend to get fewer colds but still may get 5-6 colds per year. Teenagers and adults may get 4 colds per year.

Colds are more specifically known as respiratory infections. They can further be differentiated into upper respiratory infections (URIs) like head colds or lower respiratory infections (LRIs) like bronchitis. The vast majority of all respiratory infections, both upper and lower, are caused by viruses.

Viral respiratory infections can be mild to severe. They typically involve a stuffy nose with nasal secretions, and can be accompanied by cough, fever, headache, sore throat, ear pain, decreased appetite, increased fatigue, stomach upset (particularly in children), nausea (sometimes with vomiting and diarrhea) or a rash…or any combination of above. If that isn’t unpleasant enough, they commonly get worse before they get better. Generally speaking, respiratory symptoms worsen until about day 5 after onset then show some relief by becoming less frequent, less intense or, hopefully, both.

What treats viral respiratory infections? Your immune system.

What does not treat viral respiratory infections? Antibiotics—these are only effective against bacterial infections. Viruses and bacteria are very different microorganisms and antibiotics have no effect on viruses.

So, what can you do to help treat your cold? Supportive care. This includes the basic health advice that you’ve heard from your pediatrician, health teachers and grandparents most of your life:

  • Wash your hands frequently (especially after blowing your nose and before eating)
  • Drink lots of clear liquids—this helps 3 things: 1. Keeps you from getting dehydrated which can happen with a fever, because of mouth breathing due to a stuffy, blocked nose and because you just don’t feel good and aren’t eating or drinking, 2. Soothes your irritated throat, especially cold fluids but if warmth feels good, that is fine, too, 3. Breaks up airway secretions and discourages secondary growth of bacteria
  • Get enough rest—listen to your body when you feel tired while dealing with a cold. Understand that your immune system needs extra energy to fight off the respiratory infection and if you don’t get enough sleep/rest, then you are risking suppressing your immune system rather than supporting it. Think of sleep as the time that the immune system recharges its batteries.
  • Stay warm—while you can’t get a cold from being cold, it takes a lot of energy for your body to thermo regulate; that is, to maintain the correct body temperature. Help yourself by not using energy to stay warm when your immune system needs extra energy to fight infection.
  • Breathe humidified air—running a humidifier in your bedroom at night helps maintain moisture in irritated nasal passages, especially in winter when heat dries the air in our homes. Also, taking a warm bath or shower before bed (or even just breathing the steamy air) helps open airways and relax muscles for more soothing sleep.
  • Be careful with cough and cold remedies—it is not recommended to give children less than 4 years old cough and cold medicine. For achiness or fever, you can give acetaminophen or ibuprofen—be sure to follow appropriate dosing guidelines.
  • Gently clear nasal secretions—saline drops and a bulb syringe are helpful to clear an infant’s nose, especially before eating and sleep. It is also fine to put 1-2 saline drops in a stuffy nose without suctioning it out. For toddlers and older children who will tolerate it, saline nasal spray can be soothing and often helps loosen and thin secretions which make them easier to clear.
  • Understand fever—the body increases its temperature in response to certain triggers, most commonly an infection. Low-grade fevers (up to 100.5) generally do not need intervention (although it is a good idea to encourage fluids). A fever over 100.5 in infants under 6 months should prompt a visit to your child’s primary care provider. For children between 6 months and 2 years, a fever over 100.5 for more than a day may require a phone call, if not a visit. Children older than 2 years can typically wait 3 days to see the doctor for a fever over 100.5. Of course, if you have questions about your child and when is the right time to bring him or her in, please call.
  • Have faith that your amazing body will win the fight. While it might feel like it, colds do not actually last forever.