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How to treat the common cold at home

Gina McKenzie, FNP

The best way to beat a cold is to get lots of rest and give it a little bit of time. But if you find yourself on the couch feeling miserable, there are a few things you can do to alleviate your symptoms. Even better? Most remedies are already in your medicine cabinet or kitchen cupboard.

  • Relieve the pain. If you have a sore throat, headache, or sinus pressure, acetaminophen or ibuprofen can ease the pain. Children over 6 months may use either option. Just be sure to double check that you’re using the children’s concentration and dosage.
  • Calm the cough. A plain cough syrup can quiet a difficult cough and let you rest. Honey is also soothing and perfect for children between 1 and 6 years of age, as cough syrups aren’t recommended for this age group.
  • Tackle stuffiness. Over-the-counter decongestants can help relieve clogged sinuses in adults. A neti pot or saline rinse is also highly effective and offer the benefit of being completely natural. Just be sure to use bottled or boiled water. For children and babies, saline nose drops are a gentle way to clear out little noses.
  • Stay hydrated. Water, broth, juice, and herbal teas are all good options. Warm honey-lemon water is both hydrating and soothing. To make it, combine thinly sliced lemons, honey, and hot water.
  • Soothe the throat. A saltwater gargle is one of the most soothing options for a persistent sore throat. The salt pulls fluid out of inflamed tissue and washes the virus away. To make it, combine ½ a teaspoon of salt with half of cup of warm water.
  • Nourish with soup. Chicken noodle soup is a traditional cold remedy for a reason. The heat and salt soothe and relieve congestion; the broth hydrates; and veggies, chicken, and noodles provide much-needed energy.

Some of my patients also find that natural supplements like Vitamin C, Echinacea, and Zinc help them feel better and recover faster. While the scientific research is still out, I say that if these help you, go for it! Just be sure to check with your doctor beforehand to avoid any drug interactions. And remember not to give children supplements unless recommended by your pediatrician.

When to see a doctor

Most colds last 10 to 14 days and, because they are viral, an antibiotic won’t help. Treating them at home is your best option. However, it is possible to get a secondary infection—when a cold develops into strep throat, pneumonia, bronchitis, or a sinus infection. With children, colds may lead to acute ear infections.

If you aren’t getting better, or if you have a severe sore throat, difficulty breathing, or wheezing, sinus pain, or headache, then it’s time to see your doctor. In children, ear pain, a headache, persistent cough, unusual drowsiness, decreased appetite, and lethargy are also symptoms that should be reviewed by a pediatric provider.

Finally, if you have a 101.3-plus fever for five days or more, talk to your doctor. A baby with a fever needs to be seen if they are under 3 months old; if the baby is under 1 month old they should be seen in the emergency room. Children who have a fever that has lasted more than three days should also see their pediatrician.

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Gina McKenzie is a family nurse practitioner at Vancouver Clinic. She specializes in serving adults 18 years and older.