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Lifestyle Changes to Manage Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)

Colds and influenza will set you back for a while, but ordinarily resolve in 1 to 2 weeks. It's a good idea to isolate yourself for the first few days of your acute respiratory illness. This will help keep the spread of infection to a minimum.

Taking extra care will help prevent the disease from spreading or worsening any other health conditions, especially if you are elderly or ill. Even a cold, and certainly influenza, can put you at greater risk of complications, such as heart or respiratory failure.

If you have diabetes, your blood sugar balance will need extra attention. If you have heart or chronic respiratory disease or other chronic illness, adjustments in medicine or other treatments may be required to compensate for the added stress of the acute illness.

General Guidelines for Managing Colds and Influenza

Get plenty of rest and stay warm. Drink extra liquids. This helps give your body a chance to focus its energy on combating the disease. Also, be sure to eat well and provide your body with the proper nutrition it needs to help fight off the infection.

Managing Respiratory Congestion

Keep your airways clear of secretions, which will increase during your acute illness and could lead to pneumonia. If you smoke or have allergies or chronic lung disease, you may not handle these secretions well. There are several ways to help clear your airways of excess secretions:

  • Use a humidifier—A cold mist vaporizer, steamy shower, or other ways of increasing the water content of the air you breathe (humidity) will decrease the stickiness of the secretions and allow you to cough them up more easily. Be sure to clean the humidifier filter daily.
  • Cough when needed—As long as there is something coming up, coughing is necessary. Use cough suppressants, like dextromethorphan or codeine, with caution.
  • Choose whether you need over the counter products—Various over the counter and prescription preparations help thin and reduce the stickiness of your secretions. Recent studies have raised questions about the effectiveness of over the counter medicines.
  • If needed, do exercises to help loosen up congestion—People with chronic lung disease are sometimes put in a variety of head down positions that use gravity to bring secretions up from the lungs to where they can be coughed up. If needed, a professional respiratory therapist can teach you how to do these maneuvers.
  • Use vapor rubs—This is a topical ointment that contains camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oils. Vapor rubs can be applied to the neck and chest. It may help to relieve nighttime symptoms, especially in children aged 2 to 11 years.

Managing Fever

Aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and acetaminophen reduce fever while they relieve body aches and headache. Other pain relievers do not lower fevers. Remember that children and adolescents should NOT take aspirin during a viral infection.

Soaking in a lukewarm bath or warm swimming pool may also help you feel better. Warm water baths with temperatures around 80 °F (degrees Fahrenheit) are still well below your body temperature. This is a good way to lower a fever in a child only if closely supervised by an adult.

Many other symptoms can be dealt with by taking certain medicines.

When to Contact Your Doctor

If you have a common cold or influenza, you may need to ride it out with the measures listed above and over the counter medicines. However, be aware of these signs that your cold or influenza is transforming into a more serious condition:

  • New symptoms develop after the initial onset
  • High or persistent fever (over 101 °F for colds, any fever beyond 3 to 4 days for influenza)
  • Yellow, green, or bloody sputum (secretions from your lungs)
  • Persistence of symptoms beyond 10 days (most colds last 1 to 2 weeks)
  • Localized pain anywhere (ears, sinuses, head, chest)
  • Yellow secretions on your tonsils
  • Difficulty eating, drinking, or swallowing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Changes in your mental status

Common cold. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: Updated April 2014. Accessed August 15, 2017.

Influenza. Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: Updated April 2014. Accessed August 15, 2017.

Influenza in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated September 27, 2016. Accessed August 15, 2017.

Schroeder K, Fahey R. Systematic review of randomised controlled trials of over the counter cough medicines for acute cough in adults. BMJ.2002;324(7333):1-6.

Upper respiratory infection (URI) in adults and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated April 10, 2017. Accessed August 15, 2017.

7/6/2011 DynaMed Systematic Literature SurveillanceUpper-respiratory-infection-URI-in-children: Paul IM, Beiler JS, King TS, Clapp ER, Vallati J, Berlin CM Jr. Vapor rub, petrolatum, and no treatment for children with nocturnal cough and cold symptoms. Pediatrics. 2010;126(6):1092-1099.

Last reviewed September 2018 by David L. Horn, MD, FACP