Here’s What You Should Do Each Day When a Cold or Flu Hits

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Day-to-day guide on how to handle your cold or flu

Despite your best efforts, you’ve caught a cold or flu and now have to deal with it. Here’s what researchers say you should do each day when a cold or flu hits until you recover.

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Being sick sucks. But it’s something we all have to deal with no matter how much in denial we may be about it because we feel that we are just too busy to be sick. Earlier we took a look at what medications and natural remedies are available during a cold or flu and what they can do for us. Today, we will break down what to expect when sick and what to do about it as your cold or flu runs its viral course.

The first step is to figure out whether you have a cold or the flu.

A cold is characterized by the following symptoms:

• The onset is gradual taking a day or more to get your attention.
• You will either have a low-grade fever or possibly none at all.
• The severity of your illness will be mild to moderate.
• Your symptoms progress to a sore or scratchy throat, then a runny or stuffed nose, some sneezing and finally a cough.

A flu is characterized by the following symptoms:

• The onset of your symptoms will be more sudden, within a few hours to a day.
• A fever on the high side will likely develop.
• Your illness will be more severe than that of a cold.
• You can expect any or all of the following: chills, a dry cough, headache, muscle aches, a stuffy nose and sore throat, fatigue and weakness.

Now that you’ve identified whether you have a cold or the flu, here’s what you should do each day:

FOR A COLD

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Day 1: No need to go to your doctor at this point. Take an OTC pain reliever if you feel a fever coming on, or go the non-drug route with cool compresses. Stay home if you can, but at this point you should be functional enough to take care of last minute have-to’s before your illness progresses further. Practice good hygiene when out so as not to infect others.

Days 2-4: Don’t try to “sweat out” the cold with exercise, you may make it worse and wind up prolonging the symptoms. Now is the time to prepare for the coming congestion and runny nose phase. Try non-drug measures first such as saltwater gargling, nasal sprays, and keeping yourself well-hydrated with hot tea and soup for thinning the mucous that follows the congestion. If you need more relief, then go ahead and go the OTC route.

Days 5+: A cold usually runs its course in 5 days. However, if you feel worse after 5 days, then now is the time to go see a doctor to determine if you’ve developed a bacterial infection or bronchitis or have something else going on along with that cold.

FOR A FLU

Day 1: This is when you should definitely stay home as soon as possible. Not only because you are in for a wild bed-ridden ride, but so that you do not spread the flu onto others—some of who may have already weak or compromised immune systems and could die from a flu virus.

Now is the time to call in favors and see if someone is willing to bring you food, OTC meds and chicken soup while you put yourself to immediate bedrest. If you are 65 or older, under 5, just given birth, or suffer from chronic disease you may want to call your doctor for an antiviral drug within the first 48 hours of your illness to help your body combat the virus. Don’t wait until your fever spikes, go ahead and take Tylenol or Advil to keep it down and offer you some pain relief. And don’t ask your doctor or the clinic for an antibiotic “just in case.” Antibiotics do not work on viruses.

Days 2-4: Even if food is the last thing you feel like you want during this time, stay hydrated and keep your electrolytes in balance with chicken or veggie broth, tea, juice or an iced fruit pop. Keep track of your fever, especially with small children who can suffer a seizure when body temp spikes occur. If you develop difficulty with breathing or swallowing or are feeling disoriented, or are not urinating like you normally do, now is the time to call your doctor again and update him or her on your condition to make sure your flu is not progressing into something more harmful.

Days 5-6: If you have been fever-free for 24 hours and feel up to it, you can return to work, but expect to have a lingering sore throat and cough. Treat your symptoms and ease off the first few days to get your strength back. Continue with the gargling and eating chicken soup.

Days 7+: Do not panic if you are not fully recovered after 7 days—sometimes it takes longer. However, if you are not improving and might be developing bronchitis or pneumonia or something else, then go see your doctor and get a diagnosis and a change in treatment that might require antibiotics at this point.

If you have some favorite cold and flu cures that you swear works for you, tell us about it in the comments section below.

Reference: “A Day-by-Day Guide for Treating a Cold or the Flu” Consumer Reports on Health Jan. 2018 issue

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