How a Cold Is Treated

A cold typically lasts between seven and 10 days, and the only cure is to get some rest, stay hydrated, and wait it out. There are, however, many cold treatment options that can help ease symptoms and make this period more tolerable. Steam, warm liquids, and other home remedies, as well as over-the-counter medication (e.g., decongestants, expectorants, cough suppressants, pain relievers, and more) can help treat cough, congestion, and/or runny nose.

Prescriptions may be used, but are not as common. Some also note benefit from certain complementary and alternative therapies.

If you are treating a child, know that not all cold treatments are appropriate them. As always, 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

Despite product package promises and those of old-fashioned home remedies, there is no miracle cure for a cold, and nothing has been proven to shorten the course of the illness.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises you to stay hydrated by drinking enough fluids while avoiding alcohol and caffeinated products. Getting rest is also recommended.

For a sore throat, sucking on lozenges can help soothe it. However, do not give lozenges to children under age 4, due to the risk of choking. Gargling with warm salt water can also help.

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

A steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup can be comforting but has not been scientifically proven to be a true cure; it is thought that hot liquids, in general, might help loosen congestion.

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 a risk of infant botulism.

Saline nasal irrigation is a home remedy often recommended to relieve sinus congestion such as with the common cold. However, 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.

Avoiding smoking or secondhand smoke may also help keep your symptoms from feeling worse.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Therapies

There are many OTC products that can help ease the symptoms of a cold. However, many of these products contain more than one active ingredient, each addressing different symptoms.

It is recommended that you only treat the symptoms that you have, rather than taking a product that has unneeded ingredients. Reading the package carefully can help you determine if it might help in your case.

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 doctor. 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, but 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 controls. 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 you can prevent it from collecting in your airways and 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, but coughing performs an essential function: It clears your lungs, helping prevent a bacterial infection on top of your cold. It's best to use them only when your cough has become too significant to tolerate.

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

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

Pain Relievers

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

Aspirin is not recommended for 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 doctor or pharmacist to avoid these problems.


While the typical cold does not need prescription drugs, you might see your doctor 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.

One symptom that can you may want stronger relief for is a cough. Prescription cough suppressants may contain opiates such as codeine. Be aware that these medications can have significant side effects and little strong evidence that they actually 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 due to this demand can lead to developing antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Many dietary supplements and herbal remedies, as well as 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.

However, the lozenges can produce side effects including nausea and a bad taste in your mouth. One product to avoid is intranasal zinc (in a swab, gel, or spray), as that has been linked to the loss of the sense of smell.

American Ginseng

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

Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) doesn't seem to have either effect. Note that ginseng can decrease the effect of the common blood thinner Coumadin (warfarin), so you should talk to your doctor 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, so it gets flushed out through urination.


Echinacea is another common herbal remedy touted for preventing or treating colds. A large number of studies were included in a 2014 review that found only weak evidence that the herb might have such effects, and only to a minor degree. A problem in comparing studies is that echinacea products are 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, be sure to practice good hygiene habits to keep from spreading it. 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. Any treatment would be aimed at easing symptoms, preventing dehydration, and ensuring ample nutrition to help your body heal.

  • 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 acute 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. Always check labels to ensure that you are not doubling up on medications if you use more than one product. These include:

  • 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. Aspirin should never be given to children or teens with flu-like symptoms, as this can lead to 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. By contrast, 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 there is little evidence of such benefit with the common cold. In the end, there are no drugs that can effectively treat a cold virus. Medications can be used to 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 doctor 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) recommend 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
Was this page helpful?
Article 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.
  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Is it a cold or the flu? Prevention, symptoms, and treatment. Updated January 2, 2020.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common cold. Updated February 6, 2020.

  3. Oduwole O, Udoh EE, Oyo-Ita A, Meremikwu MM. Honey for acute cough in childrenCochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018;4(4):CD007094. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD007094.pub5

  4. Korioth T. Remind families: Honey can cause infant botulism. American Academy of Pediatrics. November 19, 2018.

  5. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Is rinsing your sinuses with neti pots safe? Updated January 24, 2017.

  6. Jackson Allen P, Simenson S. Management of common cold symptoms with over-the-counter medications: clearing the confusion. Postgrad Med. 2013;125(1):73-81. doi:10.3810/pgm.2013.01.2607

  7. MedlinePlus. How to treat the common cold at home. Updated October 8, 2018.

  8. Cleveland Clinic. The common cold and viral respiratory infection: Management and treatment. Updated August 2, 2018.

  9. MedlinePlus. Dextromethorphan. Updated February 15, 2018.

  10. Dicpinigaitis PV, Morice AH, Birring SS, et al. Antitussive drugs—past, present, and future. Pharmacol Rev. 2014;66(2):468-512. doi:10.1124/pr.111.005116

  11. Cleveland Clinic. The common cold and viral respiratory infection: Living with. Updated August 2, 2016.

  12. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Flu and colds: In depth. Updated November 2016.

  13. Singh M, Das RR. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;(6):CD001364.

  14. Seida JK, Durec T, Kuhle S. North American (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng) preparations for prevention of the common cold in healthy adults: a systematic reviewEvidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2011;2011;282151. doi:10.1093/ecam/nep068

  15. Karsch-Völk M, Barrett B, Kiefer D, et al. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2014;(2):CD000530. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD000530.pub3

  16. Goldman RD. Treating cough and cold: guidance for caregivers of children and youth. Paediatr Child Health. 2011 Nov;16(9):546-66. doi:10.1093/pch/16.9.564

  17. Allan GM, Arroll B. Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidence. CMAJ. 2014 Feb 18:186(3):190-9. doi:10.1503/cmaj.121442

  18. Chen W, Lewith G, Wang L, et al. Chinese proprietary herbal medicine listed in ‘China National Essential Drug List’ for common cold: a systematic literature review. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(10):e110560. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0110560

  19. Alsan M, Morden NE, Gottlieb JD, Zhou W, Skinner J. Antibiotic use in cold and flu season and prescribing quality: a retrospective cohort study. Medical Care. 2015;53(12):1066-71. doi:10.1097/MLR.0000000000000440