There is no cure for a cold, but people can take steps to reduce cold symptoms. Some strategies might also help the cold go away sooner.

Colds can occur at any time but are more common during the winter months. In the United States, adults experience an average of 2–3 colds every year, while children tend to get more.

This article lists ten ways to help people feel better when they suspect a cold is coming.

It also provides information about flu and COVID-19, as the symptoms of a cold can be similar to these conditions.

A yellow drink in a jar, plus some fruit, for preventing a cold.Share on Pinterest
Image Credit: MonaMakela/Getty Images

Colds occur due to a viral infection. Many different viruses can cause them, but rhinoviruses are the most common reason.

A person can catch a cold virus by:

  • inhaling droplets that contain virus particles from another person’s coughs or sneezes
  • coming into contact with droplets that contain the virus particles on surfaces, and then touching the mouth, nose, or eyes

Cold symptoms may include:

Although there is no cure for the common cold, the illness typically goes away on its own in 7–10 days.

In the meantime, there are some ways to ease cold symptoms, which we outline below.

1. Drink plenty of fluids

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend drinking plenty of fluids when a person has a cold.

The body needs water to carry out all its essential functions, including fighting off infection.

Without sufficient water, people will begin to experience symptoms of dehydration, which can make a cold feel even worse.

Some symptoms of dehydration include:

People should aim to drink plenty of water and other liquids, such as broths and herbal teas.

2. Get plenty of rest

If someone feels a cold coming on, they should try to get plenty of sleep and rest. This will give the immune system the best chance of fighting off the infection.

A 2015 study assessed the association between sleep and susceptibility to the common cold using 164 healthy participants. Each underwent a one-week sleep assessment before receiving a dose of rhinovirus via a nasal dropper.

Those who had fewer than 5 hours of sleep per night had a 4.5 times greater risk of developing the common cold than those who slept for more than 7 hours per night. The researchers conclude there was a link between shorter sleep duration and increased susceptibility to the common cold.

3. Manage stress

People with stress-related disorders may have a higher risk of developing infections, as stress can compromise the immune system. Managing stress might be one way to reduce the risk of a cold.

Finding ways to manage stress can help boost the body’s defenses against cold viruses and other pathogens. Some tips for managing stress include:

4. Eat a balanced diet

A balanced and varied diet will provide the nutrients the body needs to keep the immune system strong. A strong immune system is better able to fight off infections.

The Department of Health and Human Services outlines the following dietary recommendations in their 2020-2025 dietary guidelines:

  • a variety of vegetables from all subgroups, including:
    • dark green, leafy vegetables
    • red and orange vegetables
    • starchy vegetables
    • legumes
  • fruits
  • grains, comprising at least 50% whole grains
  • fat-free or low fat dairy, or fortified soy beverages
  • a variety of protein-rich foods, such as:
    • seafood
    • lean meats
    • poultry
    • eggs
    • legumes
    • nuts and seeds
    • soy products
  • healthy oils

5. Eat honey

Honey has antioxidant and antimicrobial effects that may help combat infections.

A 2021 study found that honey was more effective than other common treatments at improving the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections.

The substance also creates a thin film over the mucous membranes, which may help relieve throat pain and inflammation.

To help ease a sore throat or cough, a person can try stirring a tablespoon of honey into a cup of hot water or tea.

However, honey is not suitable for children under 12 months of age due to the risk of contracting a rare but serious infection called infant botulism.

6. Increase vitamin D levels

There is some evidence that people with adequate vitamin D levels are less likely to get respiratory infections than those with lower levels.

Natural sunlight helps the body synthesize vitamin D. However, sunlight can be scarce in some parts of the world, particularly during winter. If a person struggles to get enough sun exposure, they may find it helpful to take a vitamin D supplement.

The Office of Dietary Supplements recommend that people aged 1–70 years get a minimum of 15 micrograms or 600 international units of vitamin D per day.

Learn more about how much vitamin D someone needs and how to get more of it.

7. Take zinc

A 2012 review of 14 scientific studies investigated the effectiveness of zinc as a treatment for the common cold.

The research found that people who took zinc supplements experienced a shorter duration of cold symptoms than those who took a placebo. Specifically, their cold symptoms lasted an average of 1–2 days shorter.

However, people should be aware that zinc products can trigger side effects. The National Health Institutes’ National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NHICC) warns that intranasal zinc swabs and gels can cause permanent loss of sense of smell. They add that zinc tablets, lozenges, and syrup can also trigger nausea and other minor gut problems.

8. Take vitamin C

A 2013 review investigated whether taking vitamin C reduces the incidence, severity, or duration of the common cold.

The study found that taking at least 200 mg per day of vitamin C did not reduce the risk of getting a cold. However, it did appear to reduce the duration of cold symptoms by an average of 8% in adults and 14% in children. This translates to approximately one fewer day of symptoms.

A later review, from 2018, also concluded that taking vitamin C does not prevent a cold.

The researchers note that further randomized controlled trials are necessary to confirm these findings.

The CDC recommends breathing in steam or using a humidifier to relieve cold symptoms.

People have long used steam when they have a cold to help mucus drain more easily. People also report that it makes them feel better.

A 2017 review did not find enough evidence to confirm that inhaling steam is either beneficial or harmful, although two studies reported minor adverse effects.

To use steam, a person can breathe in steam from a bowl of hot — but not boiling — water. Another option is to use a humidifying device.

What are the best humidifiers for home and office use?

10. Try over-the-counter medicines

The following over-the-counter (OTC) medications will not cure a cold, but they may help alleviate symptoms:

  • pain relievers, such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen
  • throat lozenges to relieve a sore throat
  • saline nasal spray or drops
  • cough and cold medicines for those aged 5 years and over

Always talk to a doctor or pharmacist before taking these OTC medicines or before giving them to children.

Because cold symptoms can resemble COVID-19, people should call a doctor to check whether they need testing. In addition to typical cold symptoms, COVID-19 may also trigger:

A doctor can advise people on what to do next if they have symptoms that resemble COVID-19.

Most people with COVID-19 experience mild symptoms and tend to recover at home without medical treatment. However, a person should call the emergency services if they experience any of the following:

  • difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath during walking or light activity
  • persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • new confusion
  • bluish discoloration of the lips or face in lighter skin people, or gray and whitish discoloration in those with darker skin

The CDC recommends seeking medical help if:

  • cold symptoms persist for more than 10 days
  • cold symptoms are severe or unusual
  • a child younger than 3 months of age becomes sick, and they are experiencing fever or lethargy
  • there has been potential exposure to someone with COVID-19

Similarities to flu

Flu symptoms can be similar to those of the common cold, which may include:

Most people recover from the flu within 3–7 days, although a cough may last longer than 2 weeks. However, some people are at risk of developing complications due to this illness. Call a doctor if the person with symptoms is:

  • under 5 years of age
  • 65 years of age or older
  • pregnant
  • someone with an underlying medical condition

Here are some questions people often ask about cold remedies.

How do you get rid of a cold fast?

There is no sure way to get rid of a cold, but staying at home, resting, and drinking plenty of fluids might help a person feel better sooner. There is also some evidence that vitamin C might slightly reduce the duration and severity of a cold.

Which remedies do not work for a cold?

Antibiotics will not cure a cold because they treat bacteria, and a cold is a virus. The NHICC also says there is not enough evidence to show that echinacea or probiotics can help. They also warn that echinacea can cause an allergic reaction in some people, and long-term use of probiotics may have adverse effects.

How do I know if I have a cold or COVID-19?

The best way is to take a test, as the symptoms can be similar. A fever is more likely with COVID-19 than with a cold, but not everyone with COVID-19 has a fever, and some people have a fever with a cold. Read here about common cold vs. COVID-19 symptoms.

There is no cure for the common cold. However, people can take steps to ease the symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness. These include getting plenty of water and rest, eating a healthful diet, and taking OTC medicines and supplements.

A cold will usually go away on its own. If someone still feels ill after 10 days or has severe symptoms, they should speak to a doctor.

Some cold symptoms are similar to those of other viral infections, such as the flu and COVID-19. A doctor can assess whether a person may have COVID-19 and advise them on what to do next.