The common cold is caused by a viral infection in the upper airways, sinuses, throat, and nose. Although unpleasant, it is generally not a cause for concern.

In the vast majority of cases, despite feeling ill, with sneezing, sore throat, cough, and runny nose, a cold is a self-limiting infection; this means it gets better on its own without requiring any special treatment.

Most people get better within 1 week although, in some cases, it may last longer.

In this article, the MNT Knowledge Center will look at ways to treat the symptoms of a cold and get some relief.

Fast facts on how to treat a cold:

  • Colds will most likely go away on their own.
  • Treatment looks to make life easier and more manageable in the meantime.
  • There is no cure for the common cold, so, whatever remedies are taken only help treat the symptoms.
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Antibiotics are prescribed for bacterial infections. Colds are caused by viruses and do not respond to antibiotics. Antibiotics will not help patients get better any faster, neither will they prevent patients from passing it on to other people.

An article published in the BMJ said that fear of complications is not a good enough reason to prescribe antibiotics for the common cold. However, it adds that, “as far as the elderly are concerned, antibiotics do significantly lessen the risk of pneumonia following a chest infection.”

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Echinacea is derived from the purple coneflower.

Echinacea, also known as purple coneflower is a native North American wild flower. Indigenous peoples use it as an herbal remedy for a variety of illnesses and conditions. Studies have produced, and continue to produce, conflicting results.

As an example, a 2007 study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, found that the herbal remedy reduced the duration of a cold by an average of 1.4 days and lowered a person’s chance of catching a cold by 58 percent.

Conversely, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine reported in Annals of Internal Medicine that Echinacea has no big impact on the common cold, and only reduces the duration of symptoms “by half a day at the most.”

Sweating and runny noses are common when people have a cold; these symptoms can cause dehydration. This loss of fluids needs to be constantly replaced. The best drink is water.

When someone has a cold, they should drink plenty of water. Remember that coffee and caffeinated sodas can cause dehydration – so consider avoiding them.

Experts believe that chicken soup really does help relieve the symptoms of colds. It is believed to inhibit the movement of neutrophils, immune system cells that cause inflammation, and also the movement of mucus.

Chicken soup is also watery and may help with dehydration.

Getting plenty of rest will not only help alleviate some of the symptoms, and make people feel less miserable, it may also reduce the duration of their cold. Rest helps the immune system fight off the viral infection more effectively.

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If there are no tissues, doctors recommend sneezing or coughing into the crook of the elbow to stop germs spreading.

Good hygiene is important to prevent the spread of infection. Stay away from work or school while not feeling well.

Cover the mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and throw it away into a trash can immediately. Make sure to wash hands thoroughly with warm water and soap.

If there are no tissues and a person coughs or sneezes, doctors recommend doing so into the inner part of the elbow, because that part of the body does not then contaminate surfaces.

Salt water gargle – making a solution consisting of one-quarter teaspoon of salt dissolved in 8 ounces of warm water and gargling it may provide some temporary relief for sore throat symptoms. A saline solution can help draw excess fluid from inflamed tissues in the back of the throat, resulting in less pain. Thick mucus may also become loosened, making it easier to expel.

Nasal saline drops – available from pharmacies, these may help young babies with nasal congestions. Nasal saline drops may be a useful alternative to salt solutions for gargling (getting babies and very young children to gargle is virtually impossible).

The steam may help alleviate symptoms of congestion. For a traditional steam inhalation:

  • Half fill a pan with water and bring it to the boil.
  • Place the pan on a sturdy table; make sure there is a towel or heat-resistant mat under it.
  • Patients can sit with their head over the pan and cover themselves with a towel.
  • Breathe deeply with eyes closed.
  • Make sure none of the steam gets into the eyes.

Do not use steam inhalation with small children – there is a risk of scalding. Small children may benefit from standing close to a hot shower and breathing in the steam.

Previous studies have had mixed results regarding the benefits of zinc for fighting colds. Most positive studies say the zinc should be taken within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms.

Canadian researchers recently found that zinc tends to work better with adults than with children; they added that adverse effects, especially when higher doses are taken, are common. A serious adverse side effect is permanent anosmia, or lack of smell. Before using zinc, it is important to know which preparation and dosage you are taking.

A 2013 Cochrane review examined Vitamin C’s effects on the common cold. The review concluded that there was a reduction in duration of symptoms in people who were already taking at least 200 milligrams a day of vitamin C supplements. Once symptoms had begun, they found no benefit to taking Vitamin C.

Sedating (first generation) antihistamines may alleviate some cold symptoms slightly, such as the watery eyes, runny nose, coughs, and sneezes. Experts are not sure, though, whether the benefits of using antihistamines really outweigh the side effects. Studies have come back with mixed results.

Many specialists say that antihistamines dry up nasal membranes, which slows down mucus flow, undermining the nasal passages’ ability to get rid of germs.

A recent review, published in PLOS, demonstrated that antihistamines may have a short term effect on symptoms, but this occurred only in adults during the first 2 days of treatment. There is not enough evidence in children to determine the efficacy of this treatment. Again, the side effects may outweight the benefits.

Decongestants are medications that shrink the swollen membranes in the nose, allowing for easier breathing. There are oral or nasal decongestants. Unless a doctor says so, nasal decongestants should not be used for more than 5 days – longer usage may actually block up the nose more.

Patients with hypertension should not use decongestants, unless they are under a doctor’s supervision. Many researchers are not sure whether decongestants really work, or whether they are worth recommending because they only work for a very short time. Nasal decongestants should not be used by patients on MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor) antidepressants.

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While cough medicine may help adults, it is not suitable for children in many cases

Over-the-counter cough medicines may be hazardous for children. The FDA says they should not be given to children younger than 2.

Painkillers and antipyretics (drugs to reduce fever) may be helpful. Although a high fever might not be desirable, a slight fever is not such a bad thing – it helps the body fight off infections more rapidly. When body temperature rises, viruses and bacteria find it harder to reproduce. With the exception of very young patients, doctors no longer recommend trying to bring a slight fever down.

However, if patients feel bothered and uncomfortable, an antipyretic is usually fine. Aspirin should only be taken by older adults, not children or young adults.

Acetaminophen or ibuprofen are effective for the treatment of both fever and pain. Check with a doctor or a qualified pharmacist for the correct dosage and schedule for these medications. Overmedication may cause liver injury or failure or kidney injury or failure.

During the cold months, when the central heating dries the air out, an air humidifier will help keep the throat and nasal passages moist.