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Respiratory infections are usually caused by a virus and begin with sore throat, cough and a runny nose. You may also have headache, muscle pain and mild fever. Viral infections do not require antimicrobial therapy (antibiotics). Spreading of the infection can be prevented with good hand hygiene and using a tissue or sleeve when coughing.

The condition usually lasts for a week, but the cough may persist for several weeks. Treatment for a common cold aims to relieve congestion, loosen mucus and suppress the cough. If you have fever, it’s usually enough to monitor the situation for three days unless you have more serious symptoms. If the cough and runny nose are not accompanied by fever, you can monitor the situation for 2 to 3 weeks. An infection can lead to functional vocal cord paralysis. The result is wheezing during inhalation and obstruction of air, and it’s more common in women than men. Rest if you feel it’s necessary. Taking sick leave to avoid the spread of infection is not necessary. The absence of one ill employee will not significantly reduce the spread of infection, as there are always many people carrying the virus at any given time.

Self-care

You should not exercise when ill. An exercise break of at least 3 to 5 days is recommended. You should also avoid talking if your voice is hoarse. Whispering is more stressful for the vocal cords than speaking with a low voice. You can try to relieve the respiratory symptoms by repeatedly inhaling steam for short periods of time.

Relieving the congestion

  • Keep the room air fresh, cool and moist. Use a humidifier if necessary.
  • Raise the head of the bed.
  • You can moisturise dry mucous membranes using a neti pot, but be sure to follow the instructions.

Loosening the mucus

  • Try steam inhalation.
  • Honey, eucalyptus oil or other solution that moisturises the throat and the larynx will alleviate symptoms. 
  • Coughing is more important than using mucus-loosening cough medicines (mucolytics), as there is no evidence of their effectiveness.  
  • Quit smoking. 
  • There is no evidence that moisturising or rinsing with salt solution helps, but some may feel they benefit from it. 

Medication

Nasal sprays and other medicines for a runny nose

  • Nasal sprays and drops that can be purchased from pharmacies without a prescription can be used for nasal congestion for up to 10 consecutive days. After this, they often worsen the congestion.
  • Medicines for allergic rhinitis do not alleviate nasal congestion when the congestion is caused by a virus.  

Cough medicines

Paracetamol

  • You can take paracetamol for the treatment of muscle pain and headache caused by fever, but it is not effective against sore throat, malaise, cough or a runny nose. 
  • Paracetamol is also suitable for patients with asthma.
  • Asthma patients can increase their asthma medication in line with the instructions when they are ill.

Vitamin C

  • High doses of vitamin C do not seem to prevent the common cold in the general population, but its regular use has been shown to shorten the duration and severity of the disease.
  • High doses of vitamin C may be useful in disease prevention if you’re engaged in strenuous sports for long periods of time or are in a cold climate.

When should you seek treatment?

Seek treatment if

  • you’re an adult and have an upper respiratory tract infection involving high fever, severe exhaustion, breathing problems or shortness of breath (breathing is particularly difficult).
  • you have recovered only for the symptoms to recur within a few weeks (in which case you may have a bacterial post-complaint).                                   
  • you have severe earache.
  • you feel pressure and pain in your sinuses for over two weeks.
  • you have a sharp pain in your lungs or high fever.

Information sources: The Finnish Medical Society Duodecim: Terveysportti, Lääkärin tietokanta database

FSHS General Practitioner / 12 September 2019

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