I’ve had a cold for weeks now. How did I get it? Am I contagious? Do I need antibiotics?
First things first: Going out into cold weather without a hat or coat does not cause colds. Upper respiratory infections are actually more common in cold weather months because people spend more time indoors, in closer contact. Aerosolized droplets from coughing and sneezing contain the viruses which spread the colds, and they are easily transmitted from person to person when you inhale them or rub them into your eye, nose or mouth after touching someone with a cold. URIs are usually contagious for one or two days preceding the onset of symptoms and for three to five days after you get sick. Frequent hand-washing with plain soap and water is the best way to prevent catching and transmitting a cold. If you have to cough or sneeze, use a tissue and wash your hands, or use sanitizer.
These viruses cause a collection of symptoms — such as nasal congestion, a scratchy or sore throat and/or a cough — by infecting and irritating the upper airways. Cold symptoms often last seven to 10 days and will usually go away on their own. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses and are only used to treat bacterial infections. If you develop a fever, sinus pain or pressure, a headache, an earache or shortness of breath — or if your symptoms are persistent and worse after 10 days — then your cold may have caused a bacterial infection such as sinusitis, a middle ear infection, strep throat, bronchitis or pneumonia. Your physician should consider prescribing an antibiotic.
— Mark Melrose, DO, is a board-certified emergency physician at Urgent Care Manhattan. E-mail him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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