Hunker down at home with a cold or flu

September 6, 2023 Providence Health Team


In this article:

  • The cold is called “common” for a reason: Adults get two to four colds per year, and children get six to eight.

  • Learn at-home remedies for treating a cold, such as using a humidifier.

  • While most people recover from the flu within a week or so, some people end up being hospitalized with the virus.

Autumn is here, which means it’s time for football games, changing leaves, sweatshirt weather — and sniffly noses and body aches. Yes, unfortunately, fall and winter are the top seasons for cold and flu, which could put a serious damper on your lifestyle. Here, we give an overview of the best ways to care for yourself when you’re sick — and when it’s time to get help.

Caring for your cold

Adults get an average of two to four colds per year, and children get six to eight. It’s no surprise, then, that colds are easily spread from person to person. Just like most viruses, you can get a cold from touching something that has cold germs on it or standing near someone who’s sick and coughing or sneezing. Get ready for this year’s cold season and learn how to identify cold symptoms and, more importantly, feel better.

Symptoms of a common cold 

Colds can cause a wide range of symptoms — from a little bit of congestion to a constantly flowing fountain from your nose. Here are a few of the most common symptoms of a cold:

  • Body aches
  • Cough
  • Headaches
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • Sneezing

At-home remedies for your cold

It can take as long as seven to 10 days to recover from a cold. While that might not seem long, when you’re battling a stuffy nose, cough and sore throat, one week can seem like a month. Here are a few ways to help relieve your symptoms at home:

  • Get plenty of rest and help your immune system fight off the cold virus.
  • Drink lots of fluids and eat chicken soup to help thin mucus and flush it out of your body.
  • Try a humidifier to loosen congestion and help yourself breathe easier.
  • Take over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol, Motrin or Advil to help relieve body aches and decongestant to relieve your stuffiness.
  • Gargle warm salt water (1/2 teaspoon salt in one cup water) to soothe a sore throat.

You may also want to talk to your provider before taking over-the-counter cold medicine. Some medicines have ingredients that might interfere with a prescription. Your health care provider (or pharmacist) can help you find safe and effective relief for your cold symptoms.

When to see a Providence provider for a cold

Adults should see a provider for cold symptoms if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Ear pain
  • A fever for more than three days
  • A fever that returns after being fever-free for 24 hours
  • A severe sore throat, headache or sinus pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Symptoms that worsen after three days
  • Wheezing

Children should see a provider for cold symptoms if they have:

  • A rising fever for more than two days
  • Severe symptoms
  • Ear pain
  • Extreme fussiness

Fight the flu

Similar to a cold, the flu is a respiratory illness that can infect the nose, throat and even lungs. However, since these illnesses are caused by different viruses, they can bring about different symptoms and even severity of illness. While people usually recover quickly from a cold, the flu can sometimes bring on serious health complications.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that from Oct. 1, 2022, through April 30, 2023, there have been:

  • 27-54 million flu illnesses
  • 12-26 million flu medical visits
  • 300,000-650,000 flu hospitalizations
  • 19,000-58,000 flu deaths

Knowing the early signs of the flu can help prevent complications and help you know when you need to see a provider.

Flu symptoms

The telltale signs of flu are body aches and fatigue. Other common flu symptoms include:

  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat
  • Weakness

Relieving flu symptoms

It’s important to be kind to yourself when you have the flu, and try not to stress about your to-do list. The following are some other tips for self-care:

  1. Use honey and lemon for a sore throat – Honey has antibacterial properties, and lemon can give you lots of necessary vitamin C.
  2. Stay hydrated – Drinking plenty of fluids can help your body fight off bacterial infections and can keep you from becoming dehydrated — a big no-no when you’re sick.
  3. Sleep as much as possible – If you become too congested when you’re lying flat, try sleeping with your head upright.
  4. Drink hot tea or other warm liquids – Hot drinks can soothe a sore throat and help lessen the chills.

When to see a health care provider for the flu

Most of the time, you can safely stay at home and rest while sick with the flu. However, some people are at higher risk of complications (including life-threatening severe illness) from the flu, including:

  • Children under the age of 5
  • Adults over the age of 65
  • Pregnant women
  • People with certain conditions, such as:
    • Asthma
    • Neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions
    • Chronic lung disease
    • Heart disease
    • Blood disorders
    • Endocrine disorders
    • Kidney disorders
    • Liver disorders
    • Metabolic disorders
    • Weakened immune systems
    • Morbid obesity

If you’re at risk, let your health care provider know as soon as possible if you’ve been exposed to the flu or think you may be sick. You may need to take an antiviral medication to help reduce the severity of your illness.

Even if you aren’t at higher risk of complications from the flu, see a provider if you’re worried about your symptoms. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Remember: Getting a flu shot at the beginning of the flu season is the best way to protect yourself from serious complications.

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Related resources

How to protect yourself this flu season

RSV, Flu and COVID: What you need to know

Long-term stress and your health

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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