How a Cold Is Treated

A cold typically lasts between seven and 10 days, and the best treatment is to get some rest, stay hydrated, and wait it out. There's no cure for a cold, and nothing has been proven to shorten the course of the illness.

As you're recovering, there are many cold treatment options that can help ease symptoms and make your cold more tolerable. Steam, warm liquids, home remedies, and complementary and alternative therapies can make you more comfortable. While prescription therapies are not commonly used, over-the-counter medication (e.g., decongestants, expectorants, cough suppressants, pain relievers, and more), can help treat cough, congestion, and/or runny nose.

If you are treating a child, it's important to know that not all cold treatments are appropriate for them. Check with your healthcare provider if you aren't sure what is causing your/your child's illness or how to treat it.

cold treatment
 Verywell / Catherine Song

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

Self-care treatments advised by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) include staying hydrated when you have a cold, by drinking enough fluids and avoiding alcohol and caffeinated products. Getting rest is also recommended.

Avoid smoking or secondhand smoke, which may make you feel worse.

Home remedies can help with specific symptoms.

Sore Throat and Cough

Sucking on lozenges or gargling with warm salt water can help soothe a sore throat. Do not give lozenges to children under age 4, due to the risk of choking.

Honey has some evidence of being a cough remedy and might decrease nighttime coughing in children. A warm mug of herbal tea with honey and lemon can be soothing. However, you should never give honey to infants under the age of 1 year due to the risk of infant botulism.


Hot liquids, in general, might help loosen congestion. A warm bowl of chicken noodle soup can be comforting.

Using a clean humidifier might help with congestion. And steam from running the shower or breathing over a hot bowl of water may be useful.

Saline nasal irrigation is a home remedy often recommended to relieve sinus congestion from the common cold. Be sure to only use distilled, sterile, or previously boiled water to make the saline solution. Nasal irrigation can be done with a neti pot, squeeze bottle, or bulb.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

There are many OTC products that can help ease the symptoms of a cold.

Many of these products contain more than one active ingredient, each directed to treating a different symptom. It is recommended that you only treat the symptoms that you have, rather than taking a product that has unneeded ingredients.

Read the package carefully or ask your pharmacist to figure out if an OTC product is what you are looking for.

Also, be aware that many cold medications have ingredients in common. Taking more than one at the same time can pose the risk of accidental overdosing.

If your child is under age 4, do not give any OTC cough or cold medications unless directed by your healthcare provider. If your child is 4 or over, talk to their pediatrician to find which products might be safe and effective for their symptoms.


Antihistamines help relieve itchy, watery eyes, a runny nose, and a scratchy throat.

  • Benadryl (diphenhydramine) is a common choice, and it can make you sleepy.
  • Non-drowsy alternatives include Claritan (loratadine), Allegra (fexofenadine), Zyrtec (cetirizine), and Xyzal (levocetirizine).

For a runny nose, you may also use Flonase (fluticasone), which is a nasal steroid.


Decongestants alleviate sinus headaches and stuffy noses. Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) is a typical choice, but it can produce insomnia. It is now sold behind the counter in many places and in limited quantities to prevent its use in making illegal drugs.

Phenylephrine is a decongestant that is not under such control. In multi-symptom formulas, the use of "D" in the name often indicates it includes a decongestant.


Expectorants help thin out and loosen mucus so it won't collect in your airways. This can help you blow your nose more easily. Guaifenesin is the expectorant ingredient approved by the FDA, and it can be found in OTC products like Robitussin, Mucinex, and multi-symptom formulas.

Cough Suppressants

Cough suppressants (antitussives) may help relieve cough. Coughing performs an essential function: It clears your lungs, helping get rid of infectious organisms, so it's best to use them only when your cough has become uncomfortable.

Dextromethorphan is the most common OTC cough suppressant ingredient. It should not be given to children under age 4, and you should consult your healthcare provider before giving it to a child between ages 4 to 11.

Combination products that include an antihistamine and decongestant also have a cough suppressant function. These can help dry up postnasal drip and relieve a cough.

Pain Relievers

Pain relievers such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Advil (ibuprofen) can reduce fever and help relieve headaches or minor body aches you may have from your cold.

Aspirin is not recommended for treating a cold, and should never be given to children due to the risk of developing Reye's syndrome. Acetaminophen is the only pain reliever that may be given to children younger than 6 months; older children can take either acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Be sure to note whether the medication is likely to cause drowsiness and use caution if you will be driving or operating machinery. Some cough and cold medications may also interact with prescription drugs or dietary supplements, so you should check with your healthcare provider or pharmacist to avoid these problems.


While the typical cold does not need treatment with prescription drugs, you should see your healthcare provider if the symptoms are severe or last more than 10 days. If you have asthma, a cold can trigger an attack and you may need your asthma medications adjusted.

Prescription therapies may treat the following symptoms:

  • Prescription cough suppressants may contain opiates such as codeine. These medications can have significant side effects and there's little evidence that they work.
  • For a runny nose that won't stop, Nasonex (mometasone) is a prescription nasal steroid.

While many people request antibiotics when they have a cold, these drugs have no effect on the cold virus. Overprescription can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Many dietary supplements, herbal remedies, and holistic health practices have been studied to see if they reduce the length of colds. None have reached the level of being a cure, but some studies show that they may have beneficial effects.


Studies are ongoing using zinc to reduce the duration of cold symptoms in healthy people. While the data isn't conclusive, zinc lozenges, syrup, or tablets of up to 75 milligrams(mg) per day, when used throughout your cold, may shorten its duration.

These lozenges can produce side effects, including nausea and a bad taste in your mouth.

Avoid intranasal zinc (in a swab, gel, or spray), as that has been linked to the loss of the sense of smell.

American Ginseng

There's some evidence that American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) may shorten the duration of a cold. The studies that showed this were in people who took ginseng for eight to 16 weeks to prevent colds. Although they didn't have significantly fewer colds, their colds were shorter.

Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) doesn't seem to be beneficial.

Note that ginseng can decrease the effect of the common blood thinner Coumadin (warfarin), so you should talk to your healthcare provider before using it if you are on any medications.

Vitamin C

Many people swear by taking extra vitamin C for a cold. Findings as to whether it works or not are inconsistent.

People who live in cold climates and people who regularly participate in strenuous exercise, such as distance runners, typically have low levels of vitamin C. Taking a vitamin C supplement could prevent them from getting colds. But unless you have this deficiency, it will probably do nothing to prevent or cure a cold.

It may be tempting to give yourself a high dose of vitamin C when you feel cold symptoms coming on, but more isn't better. In fact, taking more than 500 mg of vitamin C is basically useless. Your body cannot fully absorb it, and it gets flushed out through urination.


Echinacea is another common herbal remedy touted for preventing or treating colds. A 2014 review comparing many studies found only weak evidence that the herb might have such effects, and only to a minor degree.

A problem with comparing studies is that echinacea products come from more than one species and different parts of the plant.

Other CAM remedies that are under research include garlic (appears not to be effective), meditation and exercise (one study found some effects), and probiotics.

A Word From Verywell

When you have symptoms of a cold or are caring for your child or a family member who has one, remember to practice good hygiene habits to keep it from spreading. Wash your hands often. Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough, and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you treat a cold?

    In most cases, you simply need to rest and let the infection run its course, stay hydrated, and get enough nutrition to help your body heal. Treatment can help ease symptoms.

  • What home remedies can help treat a cold?

    There are several homespun remedies that can help ease cold symptoms. These include:

    • Gargling with salt water to ease a scratchy throat
    • A neti pot to help clear stuffy nasal passages
    • A humidifier or cool-mist vaporizer to help ease congestion
    • Sipping warm broth or tea to loosen congestion
    • Honey to help ease sore throat pain
  • What over-the-counter remedies can I use for cold?

    There are many over-the-counter cold medications to choose from, some of which are co-formulated into multi-symptom cold & flu remedies.

    These include:

    • Antihistamines like Benadryl (diphenhydramine)
    • Decongestants containing phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine
    • Cough suppressants containing dextromethorphan
    • Expectorants containing guaifenesin
    • Pain relievers like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen)

    Always check labels so you won't double up on medications if you use more than one product.

  • Are colds treated differently in children?

    Colds are treated similarly in children and adults. With that said, avoid using adult cold & flu remedies in children unless a doctor specifically tells you to. Aspirin should never be given to children or teens because it can cause a potentially fatal condition called Reye's syndrome. To be safe, use Tylenol instead.

  • Do natural cold remedies work?

    There is some evidence that supplements like vitamin C and zinc can shorten the duration of a cold. Popular alternative remedies like ginseng, echinacea, and Chinese herbs have little evidence to support their use and may cause side effects if overused.

  • Can antivirals help treat a cold?

    Oral antivirals may be effective in shortening the duration of the flu, but they don't treat the common cold. In the end, there are no drugs that can effectively treat a cold virus. Medications can help ease the symptoms of a cold if needed.

  • Why can’t I take an antibiotic for a cold?

    Antibiotics treat bacterial infections, and colds are caused by a virus. Antibiotics have no benefit in treating a cold and only increase the risk of antibiotic resistance.

  • When should I see a healthcare provider about a cold?

    While most colds don’t require medical care, there are times when another illness may be mistaken for a cold, or a cold can lead to a secondary infection. Whatever the cause, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that you seek medical care if you have:

    • Symptoms that last more than 10 days without improvement
    • Fever that lasts for more than four days
    • Symptoms that initially improve but then get worse
    • Difficulty breathing or fast breathing
    • Signs of dehydration
    • Worsening of any chronic medical condition
19 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kristina Duda, RN
Kristina Duda, BSN, RN, CPN, has been working in healthcare since 2002. She specializes in pediatrics and disease and infection prevention.