There is no cure for the common cold. However, there is some evidence that drinking a small amount of alcohol may reduce the number of colds people get per year.

According to an older 2015 review, this may be because moderate alcohol consumption has been shown to enhance immune function. More recent and large-scale studies are necessary to verify this.

That said, excessive alcohol consumption is highly damaging to human health and increases the risk of infection.

In this article, we will discuss whether alcohol helps treat or prevent a cold and what impact it has on the immune system. We will also look into other alternative treatments.

A woman on a sofa blowing her nose due to a cold. There is cold medicine in front of her on a coffee table.Share on Pinterest
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No, alcohol cannot treat or cure the common cold.

Colds are the result of a viral infection. Of over 200 viruses that can potentially cause a cold, rhinoviruses are the most common.

There is no cure for these infections. However, because most colds are relatively mild and short-term illnesses, most people do not require medical treatment. The symptoms will usually get better on their own within 10–14 days.

Health authorities generally do not recommend drinking alcohol during a cold. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also advise people who do not currently drink to avoid starting for any reason.

Alcohol has different effects on the immune system depending on how much a person consumes.

According to older research, long-term alcohol use can make a person 3–7 times more susceptible to viral and bacterial infections, including colds.

However, other studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption may decrease the number of colds people get overall. This could be because alcohol influences aspects of the immune response.

Multiple mechanisms may be responsible for this effect, including the release of inflammatory cytokines, which may be beneficial for fighting infections in the short term.

However, long-term alcohol misuse causes long-term inflammation throughout the body. This is harmful to health. Also, consuming alcohol can:

  • alter a person’s gut flora
  • damage the intestinal lining
  • impair the function of immune cells in the respiratory tract

All of these changes increase a person’s vulnerability to infections and disease.

Although some people claim that alcohol is a decongestant, the reverse may be true. The consumption of alcohol may lead to nasal congestion.

A small 2022 study tested the effects of alcohol on airflow through the nose. They tested the space inside the nose and the level of airway resistance in 31 adults, 2 hours after they drank alcohol.

Across adults who drank lightly or heavily, alcohol consumption led to decreased nasal volume and increased airway resistance, suggesting that it increases congestion.

However, as this was a small study, more research is necessary to confirm the results.

Although alcohol cannot treat colds, there is limited evidence that moderate consumption of alcohol may help reduce the frequency of colds.

For example, an older 2012 study compared the rate of colds among 899 males in Japan. Of the participants, 83.4% reported drinking alcohol, and 55.4% reported having at least one cold in the last year.

On average, the participants who did not drink at all were more likely to experience two more episodes of the common cold during the study than those who drank 11.5 to 35.8 grams (g), or 0.49 to 1.53 fluid ounces (fl oz), of alcohol per day.

For context, one standard alcoholic drink in the United States contains around 14 g (0.6 fl oz) of pure alcohol. The amount people drank in the 2012 study is therefore equivalent to 1 to 2.5 drinks per day. There is approximately one serving of alcohol in:

  • 12 fl oz of beer
  • 5 fl oz of wine
  • 1.5 fl oz of a distilled spirit, such as gin or vodka

Further studies with larger and more diverse populations must take place to confirm such findings.

Excessive or frequent alcohol use can lead to many different health problems, such as:

Alcohol can also speed the progression of other diseases, such as hepatitis C and HIV.

There are several ways to cope with a cold that will work better for symptom relief than alcohol. They include:

Over-the-counter medications

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications can reduce the symptoms of a cold, making a person more comfortable. These medications include:

  • Decongestants: These medications narrow the blood vessels in the nose to make breathing easier. They are available in the form of pills, drops, or sprays.
  • Cough medication: These products can suppress the urge to cough, reducing this symptom and the impact it has on sleep.
  • Pain medications: Adults can take acetaminophen to relieve pain and fever. Acetaminophen is also safe for children. However, a person should ask a pharmacist for the correct dose. Do not give aspirin to children.

Always follow the instructions on the label of OTC medications. Some cold and flu products are not suitable for children under certain ages. Some are also not suitable for people taking other drugs or those with other health conditions.

Check with a doctor to ensure that it is safe to use an OTC cold product before using it.

Home remedies

No home remedies can cure a cold, but there are ways people can reduce the symptoms until they get better. These methods include:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • drinking enough fluids
  • using saline spray or drops to help with congestion
  • breathing in steam from the shower or a bowl of hot water
  • using a cool mist vaporizer or clean humidifier
  • sucking on throat lozenges

Learn more about complementary treatments for cold and flu.

Most colds are mild and improve on their own. If a person develops any of the following symptoms, though, they should seek medical help:

  • fast breathing
  • dehydration
  • fever lasting longer than 4 days
  • cold symptoms that last 10 days or more with no improvement
  • worsening symptoms of pre-existing chronic health conditions
  • symptoms that improve but then return or get worse

Seek immediate medical attention if:

  • a child under 3 months old has a fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher
  • a person is showing signs of severe dehydration
  • a person is having difficulty breathing

Alcohol is not a treatment or cure for colds, and it does not act as a decongestant. Generally, health authorities do not recommend consuming alcohol during a cold.

Some older research suggests that moderate alcohol consumption may reduce the frequency of colds. However, the CDC recommends that people avoid drinking alcohol if they do not already do so.

Instead, people may be able to relieve their symptoms with OTC treatment or home remedies, such as getting rest, inhaling steam, or using saline nasal spray.