Every year, it’s the same: the sore throat, the dripping nose, the coughing. The common cold wreaks havoc, passing around a classroom, workplace or home, lingering and making everyone miserable.
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Treating a cold, though, can sometimes be confusing. From over-the-counter (OTC) medications to old home remedies passed down through the generations, everyone has a solution they think works like a charm.
But what treatments are actually successful in treating a cold? To get to the bottom of it — and figure out those trustworthy options — we spoke with family medicine expert Neha Vyas, MD.
It’s important to note that there’s no outright cure for the common cold. There’s no medicine or magic potion that’ll get rid of your cold right away. Instead, you should focus on managing your symptoms to make your cold more manageable as it runs its course, says Dr. Vyas. “It’s about riding it out until it goes away.”
But if you’re not getting better or if you’re getting worse after seven to 10 days, Dr. Vyas says you should see your doctor
Your body needs rest to help recover and aid your immune system. That’s why you might find yourself sleeping more when you’re sick; it’s not a reason to worry, but a sign your body is fighting the infection.
Says Dr. Vyas, “When you rest and sleep, it allows your immune system to recharge. Your immune system can do its job and help you fight this infection naturally.”
As for exercising, it all depends on your personal situation, notes Dr. Vyas. “Whether or not you continue exercising depends on how severe your symptoms are, your underlying health and where you exercise.”
If your symptoms are mild, you’re of overall good health and you exercise at home where you won’t expose anyone to your germs — running, walking or an exercise bike, for instance — you should be good to continue as you feel comfortable. “Keep in mind, your exercise tolerance won’t be as high as when you’re healthy, so just don’t overdo it,” Dr. Vyas says.
People with heavier symptoms or underlying health conditions should take it easy, though. And if your exercise routine includes classes or gym workouts, you should switch to home workouts or take a break so you don’t spread your cold to your yoga pals. You’ll be back at it soon enough.
Just as important as staying rested is staying hydrated. “Your body is generally expelling more fluids when you’re sick,” says Dr. Vyas. “That’s especially true if you have a fever and you’re sweating.”
Another reason you may be a bit more dehydrated? Many colds happen in winter when the air is drier and your heater can add to drying out your body, particularly in your nose. Drinking plenty of liquids and even having a humidifier on (more on this in a moment) can help you fight this dehydration.
As far as what fluids are best, make sure you steer clear of sugary and caffeinated beverages, as well as alcohol. Water and tea, with a dash of lemon or honey, will keep you hydrated and help soothe that sore throat. And if you have a desire for something a bit more savory, a light, sodium-free broth can also help, says Dr. Vyas.
So, about the humidifier: They are great for dealing with colds in the winter by keeping moisture in your nasal passage. That, in turn, can help relieve congestion. While there’s not a lot of scientific studies about humidifiers, Dr. Vyas says, “We think they work because the warm, moist environment they create helps mucus loosens up and you can breathe better.”
One hitch, though: Keep it clean, constantly. If you don’t change the water and keep your humidifier clean, mold and mildew can build up, resulting in the humidifier spewing those spores into the air, causing more harm than good for your health.
And if you have young children, you’ll want to avoid warm-mist humidifiers. Because that style heats water to create steam, they can lead to burn risks from heated parts of the machine or tank spills.
A salt-water gargle can provide temporary relief for your sore throat. The salt in the mixture helps draw water out of the tissue in your throat and helps soothe inflammation, notes Dr. Vyas, while also loosening mucus that might be hanging around. Just be sure to spit the water out — don’t swallow it.
If your cold comes with heavy nasal congestion, a neti pot may help clear you out a bit. The pot pours a warm saline solution through your nasal passage, pushing out built-up mucus and allergens that are clogging you up.
There are a variety of neti pots available to choose from, but it’s not as simple as just tipping your head and pouring the water through your nasal canal. When you use a neti pot, be sure to do the following:
Be sure to consult your healthcare provider to make sure a neti pot is the right choice for you and for any additional tips they may have to fit your specific situation.
From syrups to hard drops, there’s a wide variety of cough medicines and suppressants out there. But finding the one that’s right for you can be a challenge, so consultation with your healthcare provider is essential.
Some medicines may aid your cough and relieve congestion but make you drowsy, while others may contain pseudoephedrine, which has stimulant properties that can cause negative side effects and drug interactions.
“You have to be very careful about the ingredients of the different medicines,” cautions Dr. Vyas. “Pseudoephedrine is bad for people with hypertension or cardiac arrhythmias. And diphenhydramine can cause urinary retention.”
Nasal sprays can also help clear up your congestion, but, again, consult with your healthcare provider first. Because there are so many options, you want one that not only works best for you, but also doesn’t cause any unnecessary side effects or lose effectiveness over time.
And, finally, OTC pain relievers are good at helping ease the aches that a cold brings. Just be sure to follow directions.
You’ve probably heard that vitamin C and zinc can help protect you from catching colds, theories that have floated around for quite some time. The scientific evidence, however, has shown they do little to prevent colds.
Studies have shown that for some people, though, vitamin C may shorten the duration of a cold by about 10%. A separate study showed zinc lozenges might similarly cut short colds but, again, for certain people and, even then, not by a significant amount.
The bottom line: Vitamin C and zinc are both essential nutrients for your overall health, but their effect on treating your cold is likely negligible. Plus, the adverse side effects of taking too much pose a risk. As always, consult your healthcare provider before you start upping your vitamin C or zinc intake.
Just as important as what you can use to treat a cold is what to avoid. Foods and drinks that cause certain levels of dehydration or inflammation that we don’t typically notice when we’re healthy can worsen or aggravate your cold.
Some things to avoid include:
As for caffeine, Dr. Vyas says, “If you’re used to drinking a certain amount of coffee, it’s OK to maintain that level as you feel comfortable since sudden caffeine withdrawal can cause headaches. Just be sure you don’t drink caffeine in excess of your usual intake.”
Most colds run their course between seven and 10 days, says Dr. Vyas, but it can vary from person to person. The same goes for symptoms. Sometimes, you might only have mild symptoms throughout the duration of your cold, like a little congestion and sore throat. Or your symptoms might be more severe and linger longer than 10 days.
By using some of the remedies suggested here and avoiding the things Dr. Vyas warns us about, you can at least keep from irritating and prolonging your cold.
No, says Dr. Vyas, you can’t rid yourself of cold with just one night of sleep. “You need to manage your expectations, in that a cold doesn’t disappear overnight. It may take a few days, so your best option is to treat symptoms,” she says.
While some remedies, especially ones you can find in the aisles of your local drug store, might claim to help, nothing works like rest and hydration.
And Dr. Vyas reminds us, it’s important to make sure you’re up to date on your vaccines once you’re over your cold. “From influenza to COVID-19, there are worse infections that occur during the same season as a cold, so be sure to get the proper vaccines,” she says.