Colds, Flu, & Sore Throats

Upper respiratory infections – including colds, influenza, COVID, and sore throats – are among the most common illnesses affecting college students.  

To help protect yourself, and those around you …

  • Get vaccinated annually against the flu (see our fall clinic schedule at Annual Flu Vaccination)
  • Stay up to date on your COVID boosters
  • Wash your hands often, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Cough and sneeze into a tissue – or into the crook of your elbow – to avoid spreading germs
  • Avoid sharing cups, utensils, smoking paraphernalia, lip balm, etc.
  • Keep your distance from sick people, and stay home and out of circulation if you’re sick

Remember to keep your immune system strong by getting plenty of sleep, eating well, exercising, and keeping stress in check!

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Colds at a glance

Colds are caused by viruses (so antibiotics won’t help, unless you develop a secondary bacterial infection). Symptoms usually begin 2–3 days after infection with the virus and last from 2–14 days.

Common symptoms include:

  • Nasal congestion, sneezing, sore throat, and cough
  • Mild headache and/or body aches
  • Mild fatigue
  • Occasionally a slight fever

Self-care for a cold: Rest and drink plenty of fluids. Gargle with warm salt water if you have a sore throat. Pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen (not aspirin), decongestants, and cough suppressants (all available at the Cornell Health Pharmacy) may be used to help relieve symptoms. Antibiotics will not help because colds are caused by viruses. See our Caring for an Upper Respiratory Infection fact sheet (pdf) for more tips.

Flu (influenza) at a glance

The flu comes on harder and faster than a cold, with more severe and long-lasting symptoms that can make functioning difficult. The flu is always caused by a virus (so antibiotics won’t help, unless you develop a secondary bacterial infection).

Common symptoms include:

  • High fever, usually between 100° and 104° F (often begins to subside on the second or third day)
  • Dry cough (which can be severe) and chest pain
  • Runny nose, sore throat, and/or headache
  • Severe fatigue or weakness, often continuing for days or even weeks
  • Body aches/chills
  • Occasionally diarrhea and/or vomiting (although these are not typical flu symptoms)

Self-care for the flu: To help your body fight the flu, rest in bed, and drink plenty of fluids. Pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen (not aspirin), decongestants, and cough suppressants (all available at the Cornell Health Pharmacy) may keep you more comfortable as you recover.

When to seek medical care:  Most people recover from the flu at home without the need for medical care. However, sometimes influenza leads to a secondary infection, such as an ear infection, a sinus infection, or bronchitis. Less frequently, the flu may cause a more serious problem, such as pneumonia. People who are at higher risk of these flu-related complications may benefit from a prescription antiviral medication (such as Tamiflu® or Relenza®).

See our influenza fact sheet for more details about who is considered at higher risk for flu-related complications, and when to seek care. If you are concerned about your symptoms, please call us at 607-255-5155

Vaccination: Even if you've had the flu this season, it's a good idea to get vaccinated annually. (See our Flu Vaccine Clinics)

Sore throat at a glance

Most throat infections are caused by viruses (so antibiotics won’t help them), or by irritants such as allergies or cigarette smoke. However, some sore throats are caused by bacterial infection (see Strep Throat below).

Common symptoms include:

  • Pain when swallowing, dry and scratchy throat – often accompanied by other cold / flu symptoms (see above)
  • Strep Throat only: usually accompanied by fever, and swollen lymph glands in the neck; typically does NOT produce a cough or a stuffy/runny nose (see below)

Self-care for a sore throat: When a sore throat is caused by a virus or irritation from the air, antibiotic treatment will not help. Rest, gargling with warm salt water, and over-the-counter medicines (available from the Cornell Health Pharmacy) can help you feel better.

When to seek medical care: Most sore throats will improve on their own within 1-2 weeks. However, you should seek medical care if you your sore throat is accompanied by a high fever, swollen glands in the neck, difficulty swallowing or breathing, or if your symptoms are severe or last longer than 1-2 weeks. 

Strep Throat: Strep throat is a contagious bacterial infection that is responsible for about 10% to 15% of sore throats. The diagnosis of strep throat is confirmed by a throat culture or rapid-strep test. It is treated with antibiotics to lessen the symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness, as well as to reduce the risk of complications.

COVID a glance

Please visit our COVID-19 Information & Resources page for details.

If you need medical care ...

Schedule an appointment to be seen by one of our medical clinicians. If your symptoms are severe and you're having trouble finding an appointment time that works for you, please call us during business hours at 607-255-5155 (press 3 for appointments). If you need medical care when we're closed, please refer to our Emergencies & After-Hours Care page.