Treatments for Common Cold

To treat colds or flu, get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids. If you have the flu, pain relievers such as aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen can reduce fever or aches. Allergies can be treated with antihistamines or decongestants.

Be careful to avoid “drug overlap” when taking medicines that list 2 or more active ingredients on the label. For example, if you take 2 different drugs that contain acetaminophen—one for a stuffy nose and the other for headache—you may be getting too much acetaminophen.

“Read medicine labels carefully—the warnings, side effects, dosages. If you have questions, talk to your doctor or pharmacist, especially if you have children who are sick,” Hauguel says. “You don’t want to overmedicate, and you don’t want to risk taking a medication that may interact with another.”

Source: NIH News in Health (NIH)1

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Back to: « Common Cold

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Treated with rest, fluids, over-the-counter (OTC) medicines to ease symptoms.

Source: NIH News in Health (NIH)2

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Source: NIH News in Health (NIH)3

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How to Feel Better

There is no cure for a cold. To feel better, you should get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids. Over-the-counter medicines may help ease symptoms but will not make your cold go away any faster. Always read the label and use medications as directed. Talk to your doctor before giving your child nonprescription cold medicines, since some medicines contain ingredients that are not recommended for children. Learn more about symptom relief of upper respiratory infections, including colds.

Antibiotics will not help you recover from a cold. They do not work against viruses, and they may make it harder for your body to fight future bacterial infections if you take them unnecessarily. Learn more about when antibiotics work.

Source: CDC Features4

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Antibiotics are almost never needed for bronchitis, a condition that occurs when the airways in the lungs swell and produce mucus, which causes a person to cough.

Source: CDC5

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When to Seek Medical Care

See a healthcare professional if you or your child has any of the following:

In addition, people with chronic heart or lung problems should see a healthcare professional if they experience any new symptoms of acute bronchitis.

If your child is younger than three months of age and has a fever, it’s important to always call your healthcare professional right away.

Source: CDC6

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Acute bronchitis almost always gets better on its own and is almost never caused by bacteria, so antibiotics are not needed. Antibiotic treatment in these cases may even cause harm in both children and adults. Your healthcare professional may prescribe other medicine or give you tips to help with symptoms like sore throat and coughing.

If your healthcare professional diagnoses you or your child with another type of respiratory infection, such as pneumonia or whooping cough (pertussis), antibiotics will most likely be prescribed.

Source: CDC7

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Symptom Relief

Rest, over-the-counter medicines and other self-care methods may help you or your child feel better. For more information about symptomatic relief, visit the Symptom Relief section of this website or talk to your healthcare professional, including your pharmacist. Remember, always use over-the-counter products as directed. Many over-the-counter products are not recommended for children of certain ages.

Source: CDC8

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  • Decongestants
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines

Source: MedLinePlus Magazine (NIH)9

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Most people do not need antibiotics for acute bronchitis. However, if your doctor thinks you also have a bacterial infection in your airways along with the bronchitis virus, you may need to take antibiotics.


Bronchitis will almost always go away on its own within 1 week. These tips will help you cope with the symptoms.

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • If you have asthma or another chronic lung condition, use your inhaler (such as salbutamol).
  • Rest as much as you can.
  • Take aspirin or paracetamol if you have a fever. Do not give aspirin to children.
  • Use a humidifier or breathe steam in the bathroom.
  • Do not smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke and air pollution.

Some medicines can help break up or loosen mucus. Ask your pharmacist for help in choosing the right medicine.

If your symptoms do not improve, your doctor may prescribe an inhaler to open your airways if you are wheezing.

Source: New Zealand Health10

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Self care when you have a cold

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Drink lots of fluids such as water.
  • Use a humidifier to increase air moisture, especially in your bedroom.

There are no medicines that cure a cold. However, you can treat your symptoms with medicines such as painkillers, nose drops or sprays, cough syrups and drops, throat lozenges and decongestants. (Check with your doctor or pharmacist before you take any of these if you’re already taking other medicines.)

Always read the medicine instructions and ask your doctor or pharmacist if you are not sure.

Some medicines aren’t safe for children or for women during pregnancy. For example, Vicks VapoRub can be very dangerous if used on infants or young children, or if it is heated in any way. 

Source: New Zealand Health11

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How you can treat a cold yourself

To help you get better more quickly:

  • rest and sleep
  • keep warm
  • drink plenty of water (fruit juice or squash mixed with water is ok) to avoid dehydration
  • gargle salt water to soothe a sore throat

Source: NHS Choices UK12

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A pharmacist can help with cold medicines

You can buy cough and cold medicines from pharmacies or supermarkets. A pharmacist can advise you on the best medicine.

You can:

  • relieve a blocked nose with decongestant sprays or tablets
  • ease aches or lower a temperature with painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen

Be careful not to use cough and cold medicines if you’re taking paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets as it’s easy to take more than the recommended dose.

Some are not suitable for children, babies and pregnant women.

There’s little evidence that supplements (such as vitamin c, zinc, echinacea or garlic) prevent colds or speed up recovery.

Source: NHS Choices UK13

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GPs don't recommend antibiotics for colds because they won't relieve your symptoms or speed up your recovery.

Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections and colds are caused by viruses.

Source: NHS Choices UK14

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Treating cold-like symptoms

If you have cold-like symptoms such as a runny nose, sore throat or a cough, there are a number of things you can do to feel more comfortable.

For example, steam inhalation may offer some relief from a cough. This involves sitting with your head over a bowl of hot water. Place a towel over your head, close your eyes and breathe deeply, while trying not to get the hot steam in your eyes.

Steam inhalation isn't advised for children because of the risk of scalding, but it might help your child if they sit in a hot, steamy bathroom. Alternatively, putting a wet towel on a warm radiator will release more water into the air.

Giving your child warm drinks, particularly ones containing lemon or honey, may also help to relax their airways, loosen mucus and soothe a cough. Honey shouldn't be given to babies under 12 months.

Source: NHS Choices UK15

Alternative Treatments for Common Cold

CAM: The most common uses of CAM in adults are for back and neck pain, joint pain, arthritis, anxiety, cholesterol, head or chest colds and other musculoskeletal conditions.

Source: NIH News in Health (NIH)16


See also treatment information:

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  1. Source: NIH News in Health (NIH): issue/ oct2014/ feature2
  2. ibid.
  3. ibid.
  4. Source: CDC Features: features/ rhinoviruses/ 
  5. Source: CDC: getsmart/ community/ for-patients/ common-illnesses/ bronchitis.html
  6. ibid.
  7. ibid.
  8. ibid.
  9. Source: MedLinePlus Magazine (NIH): magazine/ issues/ spring15/ articles/ spring15pg26-27.html
  10. Source: New Zealand Health: your-health/ conditions-and-treatments/ diseases-and-illnesses/ chest-infections-bronchitis
  11. Source: New Zealand Health: your-health/ conditions-and-treatments/ diseases-and-illnesses/ colds
  12. Source: NHS Choices UK: conditions/ common-cold/ 
  13. ibid.
  14. ibid.
  15. Source: NHS Choices UK: conditions/ rubella/ treatment/ 
  16. Source: NIH News in Health (NIH): 2009/ January/ feature2.htm

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Note: This site is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. See your doctor or other qualified medical professional for all your medical needs.