- The common cold is not typically harmful, but it can be frustrating to get rid of.
- Experts recommend hydrating and getting lots of rest in order to shake a cold.
- The average cold lasts 7-10 days, even with the proper rest and care.
You start sniffling, sneezing, or feeling that familiar tickle in the back of your throat and you know: you’ve caught a cold.
Getting a cold is incredibly common — in fact, adults can expect to have 2-3 colds each year, while children can have up to 10 or more.
If you want to get over a cold as fast as possible, just remember that expecting it to disappear tomorrow isn’t realistic.
Most colds cause 7-10 days of symptoms, says Dr. Patricia N. Whitley-Williams, past-president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and professor of pediatrics at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
Though there is no cure for the common cold, it usually goes away on its own — and in the meantime, you can use home remedies and OTC medications to manage your symptoms like cough, sore throat, and congestion.
Here are 16 things you can do to relieve cold symptoms and feel better.
1. Drink plenty of fluids
“The best thing you can do to recover from a cold is to rest and drink plenty of fluids,” Whitley-Williams says.
When your airways are inflamed by a cold, they produce more mucus, which can become thick and hard to cough up.
“Keeping well hydrated helps prevent drying and thickening of the mucus,” says Norman Edelman, MD, a professor of medicine and public health at Stony Brook University.
People are often told to drink more fluids when they’re sick, but there’s limited scientific data on whether that’s actually helpful, and colds have not been linked to dehydration.
That said, illnesses can cause you to lose more fluids than normal. For example, you lose some water each time you blow your nose, “and you need to replace the fluid you’re blowing into all those tissues,” says Adriane Fugh-Berman, MD, a professor of pharmacology and physiology at Georgetown University.
Therefore, try to drink at least the recommended 125 fluid ounces per day for men and 91 fluid ounces for women. Need to keep it simple? That’s about 8 glasses.
2. Get enough sleep
Missing out on sleep can weaken your immune system, which may make it harder for your body to fight off infections. Try to get between seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
If you’re stuffy, and having trouble falling asleep, it may help to lie on your back with your head propped up with an extra pillow. This can also help to drain mucus from your sinuses while you sleep.
3. Try Theraflu
Dr. J. Wes Ulm, a physician-researcher in residence at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, recommends Theraflu, a medicine that combines acetaminophen (Tylenol), an antihistamine (diphenhydramine), a nasal decongestant (phenylephrine), and often a cough suppressant like dextromethorphan or guaifenesin.
“It is a common over-the-counter product that helps many patients to get through the headaches, nasal and sinus irritation, and general malaise and ‘icky feeling’ that frequently show up with colds,” Ulm says.
4. Use saline drops
The congestion you feel during a cold is often caused by especially thick or dried out mucus in your sinus and nasal passages. This makes it harder to blow your nose and gives you that stuffed up feeling.
Washing your nasal passages with saline solution can help thin out and moisten mucus, making it easier to clear out.
You can find saline nose drops at most pharmacies. To use saline from a squeeze bottle, follow these steps:
1. Fill the bottle with the saline solution.
2. Insert the bottle into one nostril.
3. Gently squeeze or pour the saline backward into that nostril.
4. The saline should drain out of the other nostril or your mouth.
5. Repeat with the other nostril.
6. Gently blow your nose after finishing.
5. Use a neti pot
A neti pot flushes the sinuses, clearing away mucus and helping you breath easier. To use it, follow these simple steps:
1. Fill the pot with sterilized or distilled water.
2. Stand over a sink, toilet or bowl.
3. Tilt your head to the side, as if you’re bringing your right ear to your right shoulder.
4. Pour the water through the spout and into your left nostril. The water should then drain through your right nostril and pour out, clearing your nose.
Important: Always prepare the neti pot with distilled or sterilized water to avoid bacterial infection, Ulm says.
6. Gargle salt water
If you have a swollen, sore throat, you can try gargling salt water to relieve the pain.
“Salt water draws out water from the inflamed throat, relieving the pressure in the lining and thus reducing the feeling of soreness,” says Edelman.
To do a saltwater gargle, follow these steps:
1. Mix half a teaspoon of salt into eight ounces of warm water.
2. Tilt your head back and gargle the water, making sure not to swallow it.
7. Take pain relievers
Colds often cause headaches, particularly if you’re very congested. Taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen can help ease the pain.
If you develop a fever, it’s best to take acetaminophen, which acts as both a pain reliever and fever reducer.
8. Take a spoonful of honey
Honey can reduce inflammation helping your sore throat feel better.
It can also act as a natural cough suppressant: Your esophagus may become irritated when you have a cold — this irritation can trigger a reflex that stimulates the muscles in your airway to make you cough, Edelman says.
Honey can help soothe this irritation and calm your urge to cough.
Add a spoonful of honey to a cup of hot tea or water for the added benefit of steam, which can help loosen mucus and ease congestion.
9. Use a humidifier
“Most colds occur in fall and winter, when humidity is low,” Fugh-Berman says. This can dry out the mucus membranes in your sinuses.
Using a humidifier adds moisture to the air. This can sooth your irritated airways and throat, break up mucus, ease congestion, and help you feel more comfortable.
“This is the same reason that warm or steaming liquids — such as chicken or vegetable broth, or hot teas — as well as aromatherapy or shower mist, are found to be so helpful in symptom relief for many cold bouts,” Ulm says.
So, if you don’t have a humidifier handy, try taking a warm shower instead.
10. Sip warm liquids
Drinking warm liquids like broth or tea may help relieve symptoms like sore throat and make your nose feel less stuffy.
But if you’re drinking tea, make sure to choose a non-caffeinated option like a decaf or herbal tea, as caffeine can dehydrate you.
11. Keep eating
You may not have a big appetite while you’re sick, but getting enough calories, vitamins, and minerals can help your body fight the infection, Whitley-Williams says.
Try soothing, nutritious meals like soups and smoothies – anything that has fluids, fruits, and vegetables, and is to your liking will work, Ulm says.
12. Try Robitussin for coughing
If natural remedies aren’t helping with your cough, try dextromethorphan (Robitussin).
This over-the-counter medication can help reduce a cough by decreasing activity in the area of your brain that triggers coughing.
13. Try OTC decongestants
Decongestants like oxymetazoline (Vicks nasal spray) or pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) can help by shrinking the blood vessels in your nasal passages.
Your nasal passages become inflamed when you have a cold, making it harder to breathe and causing a stuffy feeling, so by reducing the inflammation you may find relief.
14. Take echinacea
Echinacea is an herb that may help treat cold symptoms because it has antiviral properties and can help reduce pain and inflammation.
Some research, including a small 2020 study of colds in kids, found that echinacea supplements can reduce cold duration, but other studies have found no impact.
Experts recommend taking tablets with 4,000 mg per day while you have a cold. You can also take up to 10 ml of a liquid extract.
15. Take vitamin C
Vitamin C is well-known for boosting the immune system, but research is inconclusive about whether it’s effective at reducing the duration of a cold.
One scientific review found that taking vitamin C supplements regularly offered some evidence that it could help reduce the length and severity of a cold, but the researchers noted that more studies were needed to confirm the results.
However, it’s worth noting that if you only start vitamin C when a cold strikes, you likely won’t notice a difference in how long the cold lasts.
16. Take zinc lozenges
Zinc is a mineral that may help fight off the rhinovirus that causes many colds by stopping the virus from multiplying and keeping it from lodging in your nose and throat.
And there is research to support this, showing that taking zinc supplements may reduce a cold’s duration and severity, Ulm says.
For example, one scientific analysis found that those who took 75 milligrams (mg) of zinc each day had colds that were on average 33% shorter than those who didn’t take zinc. The researchers called for more studies to replicate these results and support zinc as an effective treatment for colds.
Testing is important
Colds can mimic other viral illnesses, including COVID-19 and the Flu, with symptoms like a sore throat and cough. When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of caution.
“If you’re unsure whether you have a cold or another respiratory illness, talk to a healthcare professional about your symptoms,” Whitley-Williams says.
This is especially important if you’re around infants, the elderly, people with chronic health conditions like asthma, or people with suppressed immune systems, since these groups are at higher risk for complications from colds and other respiratory illnesses.
Colds can lead to other infections
Colds can linger for two weeks or more. But if they last three weeks or longer or if you start feeling better and then suddenly feel worse, you should see a doctor, Ulm says.
That’s because colds can increase your risk for other infections, including:
If you develop a bacterial infection after having a cold, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat that infection, Ulm says.
There are no medications available to treat the common cold, and research is mixed about whether certain supplements can help shorten the duration of a cold.
However, over-the-counter medications and home remedies can make you more comfortable while your immune system goes to work. The best thing you can do to fight a cold is rest and stay well-hydrated.
Moreover methods like using saline solution, trying zinc lozenges, and taking a spoonful of honey can all help you feel better while on the road to recovery.
“Take a sick day and simply eat, sleep, and stay well-hydrated,” Ulm says. “You’ll facilitate your body’s broader healing and recovery, and strengthen your immune system against any subsequent cold bouts.”
If your symptoms last longer than a week or become severe, reach out to your doctor for treatment.