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Colds, Flu, and Sore Throat

Gannett Health Services
110 Ho Plaza
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-3101

Tel: 607 255-5155
Fax: 607 255-0269

Approximately 20% of Cornell students consider "colds, flu, and sore throats" impediments to their academic performance.

While hand-washing, sleep, and proper nutrition can bolster your immune system and help protect you against these illnesses, chances are that you will still contract an upper respiratory infection at least once, and possibly several times during your college career.

The symptoms of colds, flu, and sore throats can overlap, making it difficult to know when to seek medical attention and when to rely on self-care. We hope this information will help you to identify and manage these illnesses.

Colds at a glance

  • Colds are caused by viruses. Antibiotics will not help unless the person develops a secondary bacterial infection.
  • Symptoms of the common cold usually begin 2-3 days after infection with the virus and last from 2-14 days.
  • They often include nasal congestion, sneezing, sore throat, and cough.
  • Headaches are not common or relatively mild; general aches and pains will be slight. 
  • Fatigue and weakness are mild; exhaustion is rare.
  • Fever is rare, but when present is usually slight.
  • To help your body fight a cold, rest in bed, drink plenty of fluids, and gargle with warm salt water. Pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen (not aspirin), decongestants, and cough suppressants may be used to help relieve symptoms. 

Flu at a glance

  • Influenza, commonly called the flu, is always caused by a virus. Antibiotics will not help, unless the person develops a secondary bacterial infection.
  • The symptoms usually come on abruptly.
  • A person with the flu often experiences a "knocked-off-your-feet" feeling with muscle aches in the back and legs and a high fever (up to 104 ° F). The fever typically begins to subside on the second or third day.
  • Many people will develop a cough (which is usually dry and can be severe) and chest pain.
  • Some will develop a runny nose and sore throat.
  • Fatigue and weakness may continue for days or even weeks.
  • To help your body fight the flu, rest in bed, and drink plenty of fluids. Pain relievers such as acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol) or ibuprofen (e.g., Advil), decongestants, and cough suppressants may keep you more comfortable as you recover.
  • Flu in depth: learn more about the flu and how to get vaccinated

Sore throats at a glance

  • Most throat infections are caused by viruses or irritants, such as allergies or cigarette smoke. However, some sore throats are caused by bacteria (see Strep Throat below).
  • Symptoms often include pain when swallowing and dry and scratchy throat.
  • A sore throat is a frequent symptom of colds and respiratory tract infections.
  • When a sore throat is caused by a virus or irritation from the air, antibiotic treatment will not help.
  • Rest, over-the-counter medicines and other self-care methods may help you feel better.
  • Most sore throats will improve on their own within 1-2 weeks. However, you should seek medical care if you have difficulty swallowing or breathing or your symptoms are severe or last longer than 1-2 weeks. 

Strep Throat (not a virus)

  • "Strep throat" is a contagious infection caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes. Strep throat is only responsible for about 10% to 15% of sore throats.
  • Most people develop strep throat through close contact with someone who has an untreated strep infection. People with weakened immune systems are more likely to become infected with strep throat. This can occur when the body is battling a cold or the flu. Stress or physical exhaustion can also weaken the immune system and increase the risk of infection
  • The symptoms of strep throat typically include fever, sore throat, and swollen lymph glands in the neck. Unlike a cold or the flu, strep throat does not usually produce a cough or a stuffy, runny nose.
  • The diagnosis of strep throat is confirmed by a throat culture or rapid-strep test.
  • Strep throat is treated with antibiotics to lessen the symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness, as well as to reduce the risk of complications. For a small number of people who are not treated, there is a risk of developing a problem with the heart valves called "rheumatic heart disease." This is why it is important to take ALL of the prescribed antibiotic, not just enough that you feel better.

Give yourself a fighting chance

Your best defense is a good offense. Everything you can do to maintain a healthy immune system will bolster your chances of reducing the severity of an illness or avoiding it altogether.

  • Wash your hands--often!
  • Make sure your diet includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, balanced with the other major food groups. Consider whether you might need to supplement your diet with a daily vitamin.
  • Get some sleep! Your body needs it to recover and be strong, not to mention to process all that information you shove into your brain everyday.
  • And get some exercise--at least a little bit almost everyday.
  • Don't let the stress get to you--learn ways to manage stress that work for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q.  What is a throat culture?

A.  During the physical examination, a throat culture might be taken by touching a soft cotton swab to the throat and tonsil area. Germs from the swab are smeared onto a special plate and sent to the laboratory for evaluation of strep or other conditions. After 24 hours, the rapidly-growing germs associated with strep can be identified if present in the culture. Sometimes "rapid-strep tests," that can give results in hours, are used with the culture as a back-up. Often the throat culture alone is done since we can usually get the results in 24 hours, the cost is less than performing the rapid test with the culture back-up, and the outcome is not adversely affected by waiting 24 hours.

Taking any antibiotic prior to seeing the doctor should be avoided. Even a single dose of antibiotic can interfere with the culture results and your doctor's ability to correctly diagnose and treat the infection.

Q.  Why does it matter if my illness is viral or bacterial?

  Illnesses that are caused by a bacteria can often be treated effectively with antibiotics. Viral illnesses cannot. If you have a viral illness, your clinician will advise you on a therapeutic regimen to help decrease the symptoms while the virus "runs its course." Taking an unnecessary antibiotic will only increase the number of resistant bacteria in your body and expose you to potential unwanted side-effects.

Q.  How do I know if I need to be seen by a clinician?

While most times, viral infections like colds and flus can be managed at home with bed rest and plenty of liquids, it is possible for secondary infections to develop that could benefit from a visit to Gannett. Typically symptoms that warrant medical attention include high fever, significantly swollen glands, facial pain in the sinuses, a cough that produces mucus, chest pain, or difficulty breathing. These symptoms may indicate a complication or more serious illness requiring a medical intervention.

Put some fun in handwashing

Watch this song on YouTube entitled "Perfect Bathroom Trip"