Coughs and colds are seldom a reason to go to the ER or to page your doctor. You need to understand the common cold and everything that comes with it. Coughs and colds can mean a lot of things.
UNDERSTANDING THE COMMON COLD VIRUS
Viruses cause colds and coughs. Virtually all colds start off as a common cold virus or some other type of viral infection. Whether or not you have a fever, green nose, junky cough, or you are throwing up mucus, the first several days of any cough and cold is usually due to a cold virus, not bacteria.
Viral infections are not treatable with antibiotics. Antibiotics will only treat the bacterial complications of colds and cough, such as pneumonia, sinus infection, and ear infection. They won’t help the basic cough and runny nose associated with a cold virus.
The common cold virus can cause green nasal secretions and a junky sounding cough. Decades ago it was commonly felt that a green nose, productive cough or a rattling chest meant there was a bacterial infection. This belief led to a severe over-use of antibiotics, which in turn has allowed the bacteria that cause ear infections, sinus infections and pneumonia to become tougher and more resistant to antibiotics. Now we know that green or junky does not necessarily mean a bacterial infection. Viruses can also cause this.
“I have a productive, junky sounding cough. Isn’t this bronchitis and needs antibiotics?” Yes, a junky, productive cough is bronchitis, but no, you may not need antibiotics just yet. Bronchitis is usually from a cold virus, not bacteria. The junky cough is usually from mucus dripping down from the nose and settling into the chest.
The common cold can take two courses:
You start off with a clear runny nose for a few days. Over the next few days the mucus turns from clear, to white, to yellow, then to green. About 5 to 7 days into the illness, your cough worsens and you get a fever. After about three weeks into the illness, the cough quiets down and eventually goes away by four weeks.
Or, out of nowhere you are hit with a high fever, bad cough, headache, sore throat, and runny or stuffy nose. You may have some vomiting or diarrhea, and your sleeping and eating patterns will be poor. After 3 or 4 weeks total, the cough is gone and everything is back to normal.
While these scenarios sound worse and may last longer than many colds, they are well within the boundaries of what can be expected during the course of the common cold virus. By understanding what should be expected from the common cold, you can decide more accurately when to go to the doctor, and when to stay home and ride it out. The main point of these two scenarios is to help you understand that antibiotics are not necessary for most common colds and coughs. You may not need antibiotics yet for your green nose and junky cough, but your doctor will decide if antibiotics are necessary after examining you to see if a bacterial infection is present.
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