What to do if you catch a cold or the flu

You did everything you could—including using our tips on lifestyle changes—to avoid getting sick. But your throat is sore, your nose is stuffed, you’re achy. Now what?

“First, reduce the harm to other people,” says Bruce Barrett, professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Wisconsin. “Wash your hands regularly, maybe wear a mask, and don’t go to work while you’re sick.”

Since colds and the flu are caused by viruses, antibiotics (which kill bacteria) won’t help. (And taking them could up the odds that bacteria will become resistant to the drugs when we need them.)

If you have the flu and you’re over 65 or have a higher risk of complications, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral drug. But you have to start taking them within the first two days of feeling sick.

And they’ll only lessen the duration of the flu by about a day. Otherwise, all you can do is treat the symptoms.

Rest. When you feel like lying on the couch, do it. The urge to rest is brought on by inflammatory cytokines—proteins that the immune system makes when it’s fighting off a bug.

“We think that the cytokines act on the brain to make you feel tired so that
your immune system has more energy to fight off the virus,” says Prather.

Stay hydrated. Fluids are thought to help loosen mucus and replace the water lost if a fever makes you sweat.

OTC drugs. “I tend to dissuade people from using over-the-counter combination cold formulas that contain some mixture of antihistamines, cough suppressants, decongestants, and pain relievers,” says Barrett.


Because you may not need them all, and they may have side effects. For example, antihistamines and cough suppressants can cause dizziness and drowsiness, and decongestants can cause insomnia.

Fever. “You won’t shorten the illness by lowering your fever,” says Barrett. So if you want to treat a fever, aches, or a headache, he suggests acetaminophen (Tylenol). “It doesn’t cause stomach ulcers or kidney problems like ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin can.” But don’t take more than 3,000 mg a day of acetaminophen. More can damage the liver.

Photo: terovesalainen/stock.adobe.com.

The information in this post first appeared in the December 2019 issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter.

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