When colds, influenza, and sinus symptoms make their yearly rounds, one of the most common questions we hear is, “Do I need to come in for an appointment?” More often than not, you don’t. Usually your best course of action is to stay home and take care of yourself.
What do I have, anyway?
Is it a cold, the flu, sinusitis, or something else like bronchitis? Making the distinction can be tricky, even for an expert clinician. That’s because all of these illnesses have overlapping symptoms (sore throat, cough, runny nose, sinus congestion, headache, weakness, muscle aches, and fever) and you might have more than one condition simultaneously. The culprit is almost always a virus, so doctors often refer to these illnesses using the umbrella term “Viral Upper Respiratory Infection” or “Viral URI,” and a more precise diagnosis is usually unnecessary. As a general rule, colds are fairly mild but the symptoms can last several weeks, whereas influenza tends to be much more severe but rarely lasts more than a few days. Both colds and flus can cause sinus symptoms and/or the nagging cough of bronchitis.
Do I need to be seen?
If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, severe coughing fits, or coughing up blood, pain in an unusual location (such as your eye, ear, or tooth), high fevers (over 103 degrees F), trouble drinking fluids or any symptoms lasting longer than two weeks, or if you have other chronic health problems, we recommend you make an appointment so we can check you for other conditions. Otherwise, you’ll almost certainly recover quickly and completely from an upper respiratory infection without any treatment, so you don’t need to see us.
So what can I do to feel better?
- Sleep: Your best weapon against these vexing viruses is your own immune system, which works best when you’re sleeping. Try to get 10 or more hours of restful sleep a day to help combat the virus.
- Drink water: Without water, your immune system cannot function optimally. And when you’re sweating, breathing heavily and blowing your nose every thirty seconds, you’re at risk for becoming dehydrated. So if you’re sick, you need to drink plenty of water, just as you would if you were exercising. You know you’re drinking enough water if your urine is clear, not yellow.
- Avoid stresses to your immune system: Avoid smoking (and secondhand smoke), drinking alcohol, exercising strenuously, or working long hours. These will only prolong your illness.
Which over-the-counter remedies should I take?
The answer depends on your symptoms. Many over-the-counter products combine various ingredients described below, enabling you to choose the one that best suits your needs.
- Headache: acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) and/or ibuprofen (e.g. Advil, Motrin)
- Fever: acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) and/or ibuprofen (e.g. Advil, Motrin)
- Runny Nose/Post-Nasal Drip: antihistamines (e.g. Claritin, Zyrtec, Benadryl) and/or pseudoephedrine (e.g. Sudafed)
- Sinus Congestion: nasal rinses with Neti pot or similar device (e.g. Nasaline) and/or pseudoephedrine (e.g. Sudafed)
- Sore Throat: hard candies, lozenges, salt water gargles, acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol) and/or ibuprofen (e.g. Advil, Motrin)
- Cough: this can one of the most difficult symptoms to control. Eliminating post-nasal drip (see above) is an important first step. Dextromethorphan (found in most varieties of Robitussin and similar products) can also be moderately helpful. If you are having severe coughing fits despite these measures, let us know.
But wait, can’t you give me something?
Most upper respiratory infections are caused by viruses, so conventional antibiotics are ineffective. In rare cases, however, bacteria are responsible and antibiotics can be helpful. We have a few other tools in our shed, too, so if you’ve tried everything described above but you’re still feeling sick, come see us. (Please note that the color of your mucus is not an accurate predictor of whether you have a bacterial infection.)
Staying home sick but still want to talk to a provider? Use Treat Me Now on the One Medical app to get care wherever you are.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. The One Medical Group entities and 1Life Healthcare, Inc. make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.
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