Common Cold Self-Care: How to Treat Yourself

How can you help yourself get over a cold faster?

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A cold may not be serious, but it can make you feel pretty miserable. The symptoms tend to progress in stages, but they can also come and go. This article lists 10 ways you may be able to help make yourself feel better and get back to your daily routine.

Person having telehealth consult with a healthcare provider white at home on couch sipping hot tea, covered with blanket

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How to Treat the Common Cold With Self-Care

There's no cure for the common cold, but there are self-care steps you can take that will help relieve symptoms and may help you get over your cold a little more quickly. Here's a look at what you can do, including natural remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) medications, that may make you feel better sooner.

Before Giving Cold Medicine to Children

Talk to a healthcare provider before giving a child any nonprescription cold medicine. Some of these have ingredients (such as aspirin) that are not recommended for children, and others have not been found to be effective in children.

Get Rest and Sleep

Rest is important when you're fighting a cold. Your immune system can be a powerful tool to attack the viruses that cause colds, but when you are tired or stressed, your body releases hormones that suppress the immune system and can make it less effective. Help boost your body's ability to fight the cold virus by getting plenty of rest and not pushing yourself.

Keep Drinking Fluids

Drink plenty of clear liquids like water, tea, and juice when you have a cold. You know you're properly hydrated when your urine is pale yellow. If it's dark, keep drinking. Unless you have high blood pressure, add a bit of salt to your food, eat a salty snack, or eat foods that are high in potassium like bananas, avocados, and sweet potatoes.

Staying hydrated may help you get over a cold more quickly by doing the following:

  • Regulates body temperature, which can help reduce a fever
  • Makes you less congested by thinning mucus
  • Helps ward off bacterial infections, which you are more susceptible to when you have a cold virus
  • Maintains your electrolyte balance, which can be affected by a virus and includes sodium and potassium, which are necessary for your body to function

What about chicken soup? Sipping a hot liquid might give you some symptom relief temporarily, but it won't cure your illness or shorten its duration. Chicken soup, however, is a source of electrolytes and fluids.

Try Zinc Lozenges

The results from clinical trials that examined the effects of zinc supplements on the common cold have been inconsistent. It is possible that zinc, taken as a lozenge or syrup, may slightly shorten a cold, though it won't make it less severe or relieve symptoms. Evidence shows that you must start taking zinc within a day of feeling ill and take it on a regular basis as directed.

Intranasal zinc sprays or gels are controversial, as they have been linked to long-lasting loss of the sense of smell (anosmia) in consumers who used the products.

Gargle With Warm Salt Water

If you have a sore throat from your cold, gargling with a saltwater solution can help soothe the pain. The salt can reduce inflammation and help get rid of mucus.

Add about one-half to 1 teaspoon of salt to 8 ounces of warm water and let the salt dissolve. Gargle at least a couple of times a day, spitting out the salt water after each gargle. Try not to swallow too much, as it can dehydrate you or possibly raise your blood pressure.

Soothe Your Throat

Unmedicated hard candy can help lubricate the throat, which can ease pain, but small candies and throat lozenges are not recommended for children as they can be a choking hazard.

Various OTC throat sprays and lozenges can soothe a sore throat. Active ingredients may include pain relievers, menthol or eucalyptus oil, and anesthetics that can numb the throat or have an anti-inflammatory effect. Some contain antiseptics intended to kill germs. Others may have cough suppressants such as dextromethorphan.

Breathe in Steam or Vapor

Steam can help clear the congestion of the cold and relieve sinus pressure. A humidifier or cool mist vaporizer can also help with congestion.

You can use a vaporizer, inhaler, steam from a running shower, or fill a large bowl with hot water and put a towel over your head. Breathe through your nose and mouth for 10 to 15 minutes, two or three times a day. Add hot water as necessary.

Be sure to avoid scalding yourself when you steam. Some experts recommend against using steam, and it is not advisable to let children use steam because of the danger of burns.

Clear Your Nose With Saline Nasal Spray or Drops

Saline nasal spray or drops may help relieve nasal congestion by loosening and clearing mucus. They don't contain medication, so they are a natural solution.

Use OTC Pain and Fever Reducers

If you have a fever, Tylenol (acetaminophen) and Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) can be effective at bringing it down. They can also help alleviate body aches, and ibuprofen can reduce inflammation. Do not give a product containing aspirin to anyone under age 19.

Some people find that one works better than the other, but it's important to take these medications as directed, as long-term use could affect the liver or kidneys. In the short term, however, they can effectively help ease symptoms.

Antihistamines May Help

Antihistamines suppress the production of chemicals generated by the immune system in response to allergens. If you have a cold, antihistamines can help reduce symptoms, even when they are not due to allergy, by shrinking swollen blood vessels in the nasal passages that make you feel stuffed up.

Relieve a Cough

Honey is a natural remedy for a cough for adults and children over age 12 months. You can take 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey by mouth, or mix it into warm water or tea. Honey should not be used for babies under age 1 as there is a risk of infant botulism.

If natural remedies like honey or herbal cough drops don't work, you can buy OTC cough medications that address different types of coughs, such as:

  • Dry, hacking cough: Try a cough suppressant containing dextromethorphan or diphenhydramine, which act in the brain to control the reflex that makes you cough.
  • Wet or productive cough: If you are coughing up mucus, use an expectorant containing guaifenesin and drink plenty of liquids to thin the mucus so it comes up more easily.

You can also buy OTC cough medications that contain both a suppressant and an expectorant. Use cough medicines with care, however, as they can interact with medications like antidepressants and sedatives.

Talk to your healthcare provider before taking cough medicine if you have asthma, heart failure, high blood pressure, glaucoma, or an enlarged prostate.

What About Supplements for a Cold?

Vitamin C is often mentioned as a preventive or treatment for a cold, but, unfortunately, the evidence is not available to support it. Vitamin C may reduce the duration of a cold or the symptoms, but only slightly. Echinacea, an herbal product sold as a supplement, has also not been shown to be effective against colds.

How Long Does Common Cold Self-Care Take to Work?

How long does it take for a cold to go away? In general, cold symptoms peak in two to three days and then resolve over the next few days. There is no proven way to make your cold go away in 24 hours to two days.

Self-care can lessen your symptoms during recovery so that you feel better, but it will not cure the cold. Zinc may shorten a cold by a day or two.

Colds affect people differently, but a common progression is to feel tired and have a sore or scratchy throat for about a day, followed by a stuffed-up nose and sometimes a fever. The congestion worsens on about the third day, followed by changes in the color of mucus. You may begin to cough.

Around the fifth day or so, you may start to feel better. Symptoms may linger for a few more days, and a cough can take weeks to go away.

How long should you quarantine with a cold? You can transmit a cold to others from a day or two before symptoms appear and for as long as you have symptoms.

The period when you are most likely to transmit a cold is when the symptoms are worse, in the first two to three days. Those are days it is best to stay home and away from others. Avoid close contact with others, cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough, and wash your hands often.

When Common Cold Self Care Is Not Working

If your cold doesn't improve after 10 days, you have a fever for more than four days, your symptoms are severe, or your symptoms improve but suddenly get worse, contact a healthcare provider.

Colds, even though they are caused by viruses, can lead to bacterial infections that may need to be treated with antibiotics. Or, having a cold may worsen an existing medical condition.

Some complications of a cold include:


Common colds are caused by viruses, and few people escape having them now and again. Most colds resolve on their own, but you can relieve symptoms at home by getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids.

Gargling with warm salt water can help a sore throat, and inhaling steam may reduce congestion. Cough drops or lozenges can help with a sore throat. Staying hydrated and rested can help boost your immune system so that it can fight off the cold.

Certain types of OTC medications can be helpful, including pain and fever reducers, cough medications, and antihistamines. Follow the directions on accompanying medications carefully. If your symptoms worsen suddenly or last for more than a few weeks, contact a healthcare provider. Though most colds are not serious, they can lead to infections that need treatment.

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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 Nancy LeBrun
In addition to her extensive health and wellness writing, Nancy has written about many general interest topics for publications as diverse as Newsweek, Teen Vogue,, and Craftsmanship Quarterly. She has authored a book about documentary filmmaking, a screenplay about a lost civil rights hero, and ghostwritten several memoirs.