How to Get Rid of a Cold, According to an Actual Doctor

Each year, cold and flu season descends upon us like a hurricane, flattening anyone who gets caught in its path.

We get sick and (of course) don’t take care of ourselves properly, which causes us to become even sicker and more rundown. Inevitably, we miss days of work and — if we don’t have paid sick leave — lose out on much-needed pay.

how to get rid of a cold man sick in bed getty images
Jasmin Merdan / Unsplash

So, to make sure we’re taking proper care of ourselves, we spoke with Dr. Kate Moran, emergency medicine physician for USACS Colorado West, to get an actual doctor’s advice on how to get rid of a cold, what to do when you’re sick, what medicines to take, and the answers to other random questions we’ve all wondered about (but were too afraid to ask for fear of looking foolish). I feel no shame when asking questions of medical professions, and I definitely felt no shame speaking with Dr. Moran since (full disclosure) we have been friends since kindergarten.

The Manual: This is pretty basic, but what’s the difference between a cold and the flu? 

Dr. Kate Moran: The flu is caused by the virus influenza. The flu can cause body aches, fevers, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cough, etc. The very young, the very old, those with complicated medical histories, and sometimes even the young and healthy can get very sick from the flu. Most people can recover from the flu with symptomatic treatment at home, but some do need to be hospitalized.

Colds usually are limited to cough, congestion, fevers, sore throat, and upper respiratory symptoms.

TM: What are your recommendations for the best over-the-counter cold medication?

KM: It all depends on symptoms! For:

  • Congestion: Guaifenesin (Mucinex), pseudoephedrine (Sudafed — in most states this is behind the counter and requires a valid ID to purchase), and oxymetazolone (afrin nasal spray).
  • Cough: Dextromethorphan, cough drops (careful, too many sugar-free cough drops can cause gastrointestinal upset), natural honey (studies have shown two teaspoons have been effective at reducing cough), and agave nectar too, but I personally think that tastes gross.
  • Body aches: Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin.

Consider both a “daytime” and “nighttime” combination, as some of the decongestants can either make you drowsy or keep you awake.

Be careful mixing different cold/cough/flu over-the-counter medications, because it is easy to take too much acetaminophen or other ingredients. In general, each individual’s medications, allergies, and medical history need to be considered before starting over-the-counter treatments and home remedies that will be effective and safe. Contact the primary care doctor’s office if you are unsure.

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Kelly Sikkiema / Unsplash

TM: How do generics compare to name-brand?

KM: Two thumbs up for generic; just compare active ingredients. Most stores have the brand and generic next to one another. Also, they are much less expensive.

TM: What are some natural remedies for clearing out the sinuses? Are neti pots appropriate? What about steam showers?

KM: Neti pots and saline sinus rinses can help keep stuffy noses at bay. Also, in dry winters, a clean humidifier in the bedroom can help.

TM: What is some general advice to take care of yourself when you have a severe cold?

KM: Stay hydrated, get good rest, and no late, booze-filled nights.

TM: What do you eat? What do you avoid eating?

KM: Don’t eat anything that puts extra stress on your system. You love Thai but it gives you the runs … maybe hold off until you are feeling better.

TM: What are some signs that it might be more than a simple cold and what should you do if this is the case?

KM: Colds can last over a week, even with excellent management at home. If you can’t keep anything down, have fevers that don’t break with acetaminophen or ibuprofen, have shortness of breath, or you have other concerning symptoms, call your primary care doctor right away.

TM: What about antibiotics?

KM: Antibiotics do not treat colds or the flu. Occasionally, a sinus infection can become severe enough to warrant antibiotics, but usually only if it has been going on over seven to 10 days. Also, pneumonia is treated with antibiotics. Medical providers try to reserve antibiotics for those who truly need it to cut down on resistance.

TM: Will I be immune to this version of the cold forever now?  

KM: Probably not.

Bummer. Can you give us your opinion on drinking a hot toddy while binge-watching Netflix when you’re sick?

TM: Resting is key. Now, I am not going to advocate for alcohol to treat illness, but honey does help with cough … My recipe: hot chamomile tea, bourbon, fresh lemon juice, honey.

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Rex Pickar / Unsplash

TM: Should you stay home from work or school, even if you don’t feel that bad, but definitely have cold symptoms?

KM: Hygiene is always incredibly important, and even more so during cold and flu season. Frequent hand washing and using disinfectant wipes around the house, on door handles, and in the bathroom will help keep family and friends from getting sick. Everyone has a different threshold for what they can and can not work through. Fevers, throwing up, and feeling so worn out you can’t stay awake are reasons to consider staying home if you can afford to do so.

TM: And what about the flu shot?

KM: Get the flu shot!

TM: Any general advice to prevent catching a cold?

KM: Smoking, drinking, drug use, poor diet, inadequate sleep, and unhealthy lifestyle choices all tear down our natural abilities to fight and prevent illness.

TM: So, don’t do that stuff?

KM: Exactly.

TM: I’ll try. Thank you, Dr. Moran!

KM: My pleasure, stay well!

Article originally published on March 1, 2017. Last update on October 29, 2018.

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