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Lifestyle Changes to Manage Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)
General Guidelines for Managing Colds and Influenza
- 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. Don't overdo cough suppressant medications like dextromethorphan or codeine.
- 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 medications.
- If needed, do exercises to help loosen up congestion—Patients 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.
- Apply vapor rub—This is a topical ointment that contains camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oils. Vapor rub can be applied to the neck and chest. It may help to relieve nighttime symptoms, especially in children aged 2-11 years.
When to Contact Your Doctor
- New symptoms develop after the initial onset
- High or persistent fever (over 101°F [degrees Fahrenheit] for colds, any fever beyond 3-4 days for influenza)
- Yellow, green, or bloody sputum (secretions from your lungs)
- Persistence of symptoms beyond 10 days (most colds last 1-2 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
Beers MH, Berkow R. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy . 17th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons; 1999.
Fauci AS, Braunwald E, et al. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine . 14th ed. New York, NY: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2000.
Schroeder K, Fahey R. Systematic review of randomised controlled trials of over the counter cough medicines for acute cough in adults. BMJ .2002;324:1-6.
7/6/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance https://dynamed.ebscohost.com/about/about-us : Paul IM, Beiler JS, et al. Vapor rub, petrolatum, and no treatment for children with nocturnal cough and cold symptoms. Pediatrics . 2010;126(6):1092-1099.
- Reviewer: David L. Horn, MD, FACP
- Review Date: 09/2014
- Update Date: 09/17/2014