The common cold, or viral upper respiratory tract infection, is one of the most common illnesses—with most people experiencing two or more per year.
In fact, over the course of a year, people in the United States suffer one billion colds.
While there is no known cure for the common cold, and no prescription medication that will make it go away faster, there are plenty of treatments that can help reduce the congestion, cough, and other uncomfortable symptoms you experience.
In this article, I’ll go over some of the basics of common colds—what causes them, the symptoms, and how a cold is diagnosed.
Then I’ll talk about some remedies that might help your cold go away faster. I’ll also outline some strategies to prevent future colds.
Finally, I’ll discuss when you should consider seeing a health care provider.
Common Cold Basics
Before we get to the remedies, it’s important to understand the causes and symptoms of the common cold to help you select the right treatments—and to help you prevent colds in the future.
There are more than 200 viruses that can cause a cold.
The most common cold viruses are called rhinoviruses, and are responsible for 40-50% of all colds.
A cold virus can spread through droplets of saliva or mucus that are released into the air when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or even talks.
The cold virus can also spread by hand-to-hand contact with someone who is infected or by sharing contaminated objects, like towels, phones, toys, computer keyboards, or utensils.
Since hundreds of different viruses can cause a cold, symptoms can vary.
Typically, a runny nose, stuffy nose, or mild sore throat is the first sign.
These symptoms are possibly followed by coughing, and sneezing.
Cold symptoms tend to surface 1-3 days after being exposed to a virus that causes colds, though this varies depending on the specific virus.
Aside from the symptoms already mentioned, other symptoms can vary, and may include:
- Stuffy nose
- Slight body aches
- Low-grade fever
- Generally feeling ill
- Thick nasal discharge that may be any color, from clear to green to brown
As symptoms of the common cold are similar to those of the flu, it can be hard to differentiate between the two.
This is especially true since both illnesses spread around the same time of year, and some cold viruses cause flu-like symptoms.
Fevers and chills are more common with the flu, as are body aches.
These symptoms will rarely be seen with the common cold.
However, the flu won’t always cause a fever.
Nausea and vomiting are more common signs of the flu that almost never happen with the common cold.
Headaches are a more frequent symptom of flu infections in both adults and children.
Generally, you don’t need to see a doctor for a common cold.
You can treat your symptoms at home with over-the-counter medications and rest.
Colds and flu-like illnesses do not respond to antibiotics and, generally, no specific testing or prescription medications are needed or helpful.
But if symptoms get worse after 7 days—or last longer than 10 days—it is recommended that you contact your healthcare provider to make sure you do not have a different kind of illness that requires additional testing or treatment.
How to Get Rid of a Cold
Even though there is no cure for a cold, there are things you can do to minimize symptoms and feel better faster.
The most important remedies are getting plenty of rest and fluids.
Vitamins C, D, and Zinc
Zinc and Vitamin C are often advertised as key cold fighters, but research on this has had mixed results, and no high-quality study has proven any vitamin will make cold symptoms go away faster.
Despite these findings, taking regular Vitamin C, D, and Zinc supplements does benefit the body and help maintain overall wellness, including immune health.
Just don’t expect them to fully prevent or cure a cold.
You have probably heard the saying “drink plenty of fluids” plenty of times, and for good reason.
Drinking lots of water can help loosen the mucus in your nasal cavity and relieve thick nasal congestion.
In addition to water, juice and electrolyte-containing fluids will help you replace the fluids and electrolytes you’ve lost, and stop you from becoming dehydrated.
Echinacea is a popular herbal treatment for the common cold.
A systematic review of studies showed that the plant may lower the risk of developing colds by more than 58% and shorten the duration of colds by 1.4 days, however research is inconclusive.
Despite the lack of conclusive research, echinacea has minimal adverse effects on health, and is safe to incorporate into your wellness routine.
Reclining with a warm wet washcloth over your eyes and nose can help warm the nasal passages and loosen built-up mucus.
This can relieve sinus pressure.
Rest and sleep
Your body needs sleep to heal and help your immune system recover.
Do your best to get as much rest and sleep as you need while you are sick with a cold.
Dry air can cause further irritation to the nose and throat.
Using a humidifier or cool mist vaporizer in your bedroom will help add moisture back into the air while you sleep.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications
There are many over-the-counter (OTC) medications that can significantly alleviate cold symptoms.
- Pain relievers: Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) help reduce fever and relieve muscle aches and headaches.
- Cough suppressants: Medications like dextromethorphan (Robitussin) can reduce coughing.
- Decongestants: Drugs like pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) are recommended to reduce stuffiness. These are not recommended while you are pregnant or if you have high blood pressure.
- Antihistamines: Diphenhydramine (Benadryl), cetirizine (Zyrtec), loratadine (Claritin) and other antihistamines can help reduce sneezing and runny nose.
- Expectorants: Guaifenesin (Mucinex, Delsym) and other expectorants help to thin and loosen mucus.
- Honey: In some studies, a teaspoon of honey has been shown to be as effective as most over-the-counter cough medications. Never administer honey to an infant under 1 year old.
Salt water gargle
Gargling water containing salt for sore throat relief works by pulling fluids from the tissues in your throat.
It’s recommended to add ¼ to ½ teaspoon of salt to an 8-ounce glass of warm water.
Using a neti pot or commercial saline sinus rinse kit can help clear congested nasal passages and sinuses while also helping relieve dryness.
Just make sure to only use prepared sterile saline solution, distilled water, or water that has been brought to a boil, then cooled. Never use water directly from the tap, which can contain a harmful amoeba.
There are also many other natural remedies recommended to treat cold symptoms—from eating a bowl of hot chicken soup to trying a new sleeping position.
Though their effectiveness is unproven, most of these remedies will do no harm, and could be worth trying.
Preventing the Common Cold
While no vaccinations currently exist, there are ways to reduce your chances of catching a cold.
- Clean your hands often and thoroughly: Use either soap and water for 20 seconds per wash, or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your face: Also, avoid putting your fingers in your mouth.
- Clean shared spaces and items: Use disinfectant, especially on countertops, toys, phones, computer keyboards, TV remotes, and other items that are touched by multiple people often.
- Use tissues when sneezing or coughing: Immediately wash your hands after throwing them out. If tissues aren’t available, sneeze or cough into the bend of your elbow.
- Don’t share glasses or eating utensils: This is especially important if someone is already sick.
- Eat well, stay well hydrated, and get enough exercise: These will help keep your immune system strong.
- Stay home when you’re sick: You’ll avoid giving others your cold. When you’re out, avoid close contact with anyone else who has a cold.
Lastly, getting enough sleep can also help you keep your immune system healthy enough to fend off colds.
Try to get 8 or more hours of quality sleep every night.
When To See a Doctor or Healthcare Provider
While the common cold can knock you off your feet, the treatments and remedies shared in this article should help relieve your symptoms and fight off the cold.
For most people, symptoms will resolve within 1-2 weeks all on their own.
However, there can be signs that suggest that you should see a doctor.
If you are experiencing any of the following, see your doctor.
- Feeling unwell despite medication.
- You have a high-grade fever (greater than 101.3° F (38.5°C)).
- You have a fever lasting more than 2 days, or despite taking fever-reducing medications.
- You’re unable to hold down liquids.
- You feel lightheaded.
- Your cold symptoms persist after more than 10 days, or you have a worsening of symptoms after having some improvement.
- Wheezing or shortness of breath.
- Severe headache, sinus pain or ear pain.
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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Common Cold. (2021).
Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. (2020).
Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. (2014).
Evaluation of echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis. (2007).
Self-Care for Common Colds: The Pivotal Role of Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Zinc, and Echinacea. (2018).