What are colds?
Everyone gets a
cold from time to time. Children get more colds than adults.
usually last 1 to 2 weeks. You can catch a cold at any time of year, but they
are more common in late winter and early spring.
There is no cure
for a cold.
Antibiotics will not cure a cold. If you catch a cold,
treat the symptoms.
What are the symptoms?
Lots of different viruses
cause colds, but the symptoms are usually the same:
- Runny nose and sneezing
- Sore throat and cough
- Headaches and body
You will probably feel a cold come on over the course of
a couple of days. As the cold gets worse, your nose may get stuffy with thicker
A cold is not the same as the
flu (influenza). Flu symptoms are worse and come on faster. If you
have the flu, you may feel very tired. You may also have a fever and shaking
chills, lots of aches and pains, a headache, and a cough.
feel like you have a cold all the time, or if cold symptoms last more than 2
weeks, you may have allergies or sinusitis. Call your doctor.
What can you do for a cold?
Good home treatment of
a cold can help you feel better. When you get a cold:
- Get extra rest. Slow down just a little from
your usual routine. You don't need to stay home in bed, but try not to expose
others to your cold.
- Drink plenty of fluids. This can help soothe a sore throat and thin the mucus in your nose and lungs. Hot fluids—such as hot water, tea,
or soup with a lot of broth—help relieve a stuffy nose and head.
a humidifier in your bedroom and take hot showers to relieve a stuffy nose and
head. Saline drops may also help thick or dried mucus to drain.
- If you feel mucus in the back of your throat (postnasal drip), gargle with warm water. This will
help make your throat feel better.
- Use paper tissues, not
handkerchiefs. This will help keep your cold from spreading.
your nose gets red and raw, put a dab of petroleum jelly on the sore
You may decide to try a cough, cold, or allergy medicine for your symptoms. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label . Don't take cold medicine that uses several drugs to treat
different symptoms. For example, don't take medicine that contains both a
decongestant for a stuffy nose and a cough medicine. Treat each symptom on its
- You can take
acetaminophen (such as
Tylenol) or ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin) to relieve aches. If you give medicine to your child, follow what your doctor has told you about the amount to give.
- A decongestant can help with a stuffy nose. Don't use the medicine longer than the label says. Overuse of a nasal decongestant can cause rebound congestion. It makes your mucous membranes swell up more than before you used the spray.
- Cough preparations can cause problems for people who have certain health problems, such as asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, or an enlarged prostate (BPH). Cough preparations may also interact with sedatives, certain antidepressants, and other medicines. Read the package carefully, or ask your pharmacist or doctor to help you choose.
For more information, see Relieving a Cough.
- Cough suppressants can stifle breathing. Use them with caution if you are older than 60 or if you have chronic respiratory problems.
Be careful with cold medicines. They may not be safe for young children, so check the label first. If you do give these medicines to a child, always follow the directions about how much to give based on the child's age and weight. For more information, see Quick Tips: Giving Over-the-Counter Medicines to Children.
Alternative medicines or supplements
Some people try complementary or alternative medicines to prevent colds or to shorten their cold
symptoms. Before using any treatment for your cold symptoms, it is important to
consider the risks and benefits of the treatment. For more information, see the
Complementary Medicine. Some of the medicines being studied are:
- Echinacea. Study results differ about whether echinacea can keep you from getting a cold or can help you get better faster. Echinacea can cause severe
allergic reactions in some people with a history of
asthma, allergies, hay fever, or eczema.
- Vitamin C. Long-term daily use of vitamin C
in large doses does not appear to keep you from getting a cold or help you get better
faster. There may be a slight
reduction in the length of time cold symptoms last when high doses are taken.
Additional studies must be done to determine how much vitamin C is needed to
reduce the length of time cold symptoms are present.
- Zinc. Using a product containing zinc may help shorten the length of your cold by up to a day.1 But you have to take the zinc as soon as you have any cold symptoms. In some cases, zinc products that you spray or place into your nose can cause permanent loss of the sense of smell.2
If you decide to use an alternative medicine or supplement,
follow these precautions:
- As with all conventional medicines and
supplements, it is important to follow the directions on the
- Do not exceed the maximum recommended dose.
you are or could be pregnant, talk with your doctor before taking any medicine
- If you have another health problem or take
prescription medicines, talk with your doctor before taking an alternative
medicine or supplement.
When should you call a doctor?
Call your doctor
- You have trouble breathing.
- You have a fever of
104°F (40°C) or higher.
- You have new symptoms
that are not part of a cold, like a stiff neck or shortness of
- You cough up yellow, green, or bloody
- Mucus from your nose is thick like pus or is
- You have pain in your face, eyes, or teeth that does not
get better with home treatment, or you have a red area on your face or around
- Your cold seemed to be getting better after a few days
but is now getting worse with new symptoms.
How can you prevent colds?
There are several
things you can do to help prevent colds:
- Wash your hands often.
- Be extra
careful in winter and when you are around people with colds.
your hands away from your face. Your nose, eyes, and mouth are the most likely
places for germs to enter your body.
- Eat well, and get plenty of
sleep and exercise. This keeps your body strong so it can fight
- Do not smoke. Smoking makes it easier to get a cold and
harder to get rid of one.
- Comforting a Child Who Has a Respiratory Illness
- Coughs, Age 11 and Younger
- Coughs, Age 12 and Older
- Influenza (Seasonal Flu)
- Nonprescription Medicines and Products
- Protecting Your Child From Infections
- Respiratory Problems, Age 11 and Younger
- Respiratory Problems, Age 12 and Older
- Sore Throat and Other Throat Problems
Singh M, Das RR (2011). Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (3).
Davidson TM, Smith WM (2010). The Bradford Hill criteria and zinc-induced anosmia: A causality analysis. Archives of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, 136(7): 673–676.