Our Health Library information does not replace the advice of a doctor. The health library is made available to assist our patients to learn more about their health.
What are colds?
Everyone gets a cold from time to time. Children get more colds than adults.
Colds 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
- Red eyes
- Sore throat and cough
- Headaches and body aches
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 mucus.
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.
If you 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.
- Use 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.
- If your nose gets red and raw, put a dab of petroleum jelly on the sore area.
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 own.
- 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.
Be careful with cough and cold medicines. Don't give them to children younger than 6, because they don't work for children that age and can even be harmful. For children 6 and older, always follow all the instructions carefully. Make sure you know how much medicine to give and how long to use it. And use the dosing device if one is included. For more information, see Quick Tips: Giving Over-the-Counter Medicines to Children.
Alternative medicines or supplements
Some people try dietary supplements 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 topic 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.footnote 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.footnote 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 label.
- Do not exceed the maximum recommended dose.
- If you are or could be pregnant, talk with your doctor before taking any medicine or supplement.
- 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 if:
- You have trouble breathing.
- You have a fever of104°F (40°C) or higher.
- You have new symptoms that are not part of a cold, like a stiff neck or shortness of breath.
- You cough up yellow, green, or bloody mucus.
- Mucus from your nose is thick like pus or is bloody.
- 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 eyes.
- 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.
- Keep 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 colds.
- Do not smoke. Smoking makes it easier to get a cold and harder to get rid of one.
- Sore Throat and Other Throat Problems
- Respiratory Problems, Age 11 and Younger
- Respiratory Problems, Age 12 and Older
- Coughs, Age 12 and Older
- Comforting a Child Who Has a Respiratory Illness
- Protecting Your Child From Infections
- Nonprescription Medicines and Products
- Influenza (Seasonal Flu)
- Difference Between the Flu and a Cold
- Coughs, Age 11 and Younger
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
John Pope, MD, MPH - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Current as ofDecember 6, 2017
Current as of: December 6, 2017
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2018 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.