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Common cold

The common cold generally involves a runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing. You may also have a sore throat, cough, headache, or other symptoms.

Learn more about the common cold in our health library.

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Influenza and flu shots

Commonly known as the flu, influenza is a respiratory (nose, throat, lungs) illness cause by influenza viruses (germs). An annual flu shot is one of the best ways to avoid a bad case of the flu.

Learn more about influenza and flu shots.

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Ear infection

While there are different types of ear infections, the most common is called otitis media, which means an inflammation and infection of the middle ear.

Learn more about ear infections in our health library.

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Strep throat

Strep throat is caused by Group A Streptococcus bacteria. It is the most common bacterial infection of the throat.

Learn more about strep throat in our health library.

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Runny nose

A runny nose can be due to colds, allergies, sinus infections or the flu. The nose is runny when there is an excess of mucus secretions.

Learn more about runny and stuffy nose in our health library.

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Pertussis (whooping cough)

Pertussis is caused by bacteria that live in the mouth, nose and throat. Pertussis can cause severe coughing, vomiting and troubles breathing. It is called whooping cough because it causes the infected person to make a loud "whooping" sound during a severe coughing spell.

Learn more about pertussis (whooping cough) in our health library.

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Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen treats minor aches and pain and reduces fever.

Learn more about acetaminophen in our health library.

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Robitussin-DM

Robitussin-DM is a cough/cold combination medicine used to relieve the cough due to colds. It includes two active ingredients: guaifenesin and dextromethorphan.

Learn about cough and cold combinations in our health library.

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Pseudoephedrine

Pseudoephedrine is used to relieve nasal or sinus congestion caused by the common cold. It is also used to relieve ear congestion caused by ear inflammation or infection.

Learn more about pseudoephedrine in our health library.

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Cough

Coughing is an important way to keep your throat and airways clear. However, excessive coughing may mean you have an illness.

Learn more about coughs in our health library.

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Sore throat

A sore throat or pharyngitis is an infection of the pharynx, the area between the tonsils and the larynx (voice box). This whole area is called the throat. Pharyngitis may be the first sign that you have an illness, like a cold or the flu.

Learn more about sore throats in our health library.

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Sinus infection

Sinus infection or sinusitis refers to inflammation of the sinuses that occurs with a bacterial infection.

Learn more about sinusitis in our health library.

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Antibiotics

Antibiotics are medicines that fight infections caused by bacteria (germs).

Read what you need to know about antibiotics.

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Hand washing

Cleansing hands is the easiest way to reduce the risk of spreading germs that cause infections.

Learn how to wash your hands.

Virus or bacteria?

Most infections are caused by a virus or bacteria.

  • Viruses cause the cold and the flu. Antibiotic medicine cannot cure viral infections. But a doctor may prescribe antiviral medicine for severe cases of the flu or to prevent flu-related medical problems.
  • Bacteria cause ear infection and strep throat, among other infections. They can be treated with antibiotics prescribed by a doctor.

Virus versus bacteria

Your doctor will decide if your illness is viral or bacterial. Here are a few examples:

Symptom

Virus

Bacteria

cough

most coughs

pertussis (whooping cough)

runny nose

most runny noses

sinus infections

sore throat

most sore throats

strep throat

Do antibiotics help?

no

yes

Cold care (and why antibiotics won't help your cold)

Your cold is the result of a virus in your upper respiratory tract. Colds spread easily through droplets in the air caused by a cough or sneeze.

Because a cold is viral, antibiotics won't help. Antibiotics are only used to kill bacteria.

Your doctor won't treat your cold with antibiotics. This is important.

When antibiotics are used too often, the bacteria change. They become resistant. This means the antibiotics will no longer work. Once resistant to antibiotics, bacteria can multiply and be passed on to other people.

Coping with your cold

Listed below are some products that can help you cope with your cold. Read the package instructions. Call your doctor or pharmacist with any questions.

  • Cough drops: Use to soothe your sore throat and suppress your cough.
  • Tylenol ® (acetaminophen): Use to relieve your aches and pains and to reduce your fever.
  • Robitussin-DM ® (guaifenesin/dextromethorphan): Use to loosen phlegm in your lungs and suppress a dry cough.
    • Do not use if you have had a cough for a long time or a cough that will not stop.
  • Sudafed ® (pseudoephedrine): Use to relieve sinus pressure and nasal congestion.
    • Do not use if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, glaucoma, thyroid disease, diabetes or an enlarged prostate.
    • This can cause nervousness, insomnia or "the jitters."

What else you can do for a cold

  • Get lots of rest.
  • Cover your cough with a tissue, or use your sleeve if you don't have a tissue.
  • Keep your hands clean. Wash your hands with soap and water or clean them with a waterless alcohol hand rub.
  • Call your doctor if your cold symptoms do not get better in seven days or if they get worse.

Source: Allina Medical Clinic; Allina Health Patient Education, Cold Care (And Why Antibiotics Won't Help Your Cold), respir-ahc-31236 (6/10); Minnesota Department of Health
Reviewed by: Allina Health Patient Education experts; Steven Bergeson, MD, medical director of quality, Allina Medical Clinic; Lynn Berg, director of risk and safety, Allina Medical Clinic; Cindy Larson, infection control practitioner, Mercy Hospital
First Published: 12/11/2003
Last Reviewed: 06/15/2010