Common Cold (Respiratory Tract Infection)

Care & Treatment

Dr. Phil Mitchell
Medically reviewed by Dr. Phil MitchellMarch 29th, 2024
DispatchHealth providers in the filed

Respiratory tract infection, also called “the common cold” strikes almost everyone once in a while. Affecting the respiratory system that carries air through the nose and sinuses and into the lungs, a cold causes familiar symptoms like congestion, coughing, sore throat and headache.

An upper respiratory infection is what most people think of as a “head cold,” with symptoms concentrated in the nose, sinuses, ears and throat. A lower respiratory infection is a “chest cold,” primarily affecting the lungs.

The vast majority of colds are caused by viruses, which means they can’t be treated by antibiotics and will resolve over time on their own. In the rare cases where the infection is caused by bacteria, antibiotics can be used to clear the infection and speed healing. In some cases, a viral infection will weaken the immune system, allowing a secondary bacterial infection to develop. When this happens, symptoms may last a long time (10-14 days) or improve before worsening significantly again

Treatments for the Common Cold

Many of these treatments can help you feel better when you’re fighting the common cold. Always use over-the-counter medicines as directed on the label. Most people with a viral cold feel better in about a week. However, it is possible for the lingering cough from a respiratory infection to last for weeks or months, even if the infection has been treated properly.

  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
  • Over-the-counter cough drops or one teaspoon of honey may be used to soothe a sore throat.
  • Use over-the-counter pain and fever reducers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil) as directed on the label. Don’t take ibuprofen if you have heart, kidney or liver disease, a history of ulcers or if you take blood-thinning medications.
  • Nasal decongestants like oxymetazoline (Afrin) may help you feel better but should not be used for more than 3 days in a row.
  • Your provider may recommend over-the-counter or prescription cough medications to help with coughing or to thin mucus, or an inhaler (puffer) to help with cough and/or wheezing.
  • Over-the-counter nasal washes, nasal saline spray or nasal steroids may help relieve congestion.
  • Avoid smoking and other lung irritants like pollution.
  • Antibiotics will be prescribed only if your healthcare provider thinks your infection is bacterial. It’s essential that you finish all the prescribed pills, even if you start feeling better, to make sure the infection clears up completely and doesn’t come back.
  • Follow up with your primary healthcare provider in 3-5 days to make sure you’re improving as expected.

How to Avoid Spreading Colds

  • Avoid contact with others and wear a mask when you’re sick with a cold.
  • Stay up to date on vaccinations for infections like the flu, COVID-19, RSV and pneumonia.

When to Seek Medical Attention

Get seen by a healthcare professional right away if you have any of these symptoms with the common cold.

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty swallowing or muffled voice
  • Oxygen levels drop below 90%
  • Feeling dizzy or weak
  • Fainting or feeling like you might faint
  • Severe headache
  • Mental confusion

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