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- According to the CDC, there are millions of cases of the common cold that affect both adults and children in the US each year.
- Adults come down with roughly two or three colds annually and while they tend to last around a week, there's no cure — but there are ways to make yourself more comfortable as your immune system fights off the virus.
- We spoke to Dr. Aimee Desrosiers, PA-C, and an infectious disease expert about the most popular home remedies and drug store products for treating the common cold, and the best practices for feeling better.
- This article was medically reviewed by Jason R. McKnight, MD, MS, a family medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.
Editor's note: If your child is suffering from a cold, please consult your pediatrician for recommendations on how to properly manage symptoms.
We've all experienced them: The runny and yet simultaneously stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat, cough, fatigue, and the general feeling of "I'm not so sick I need a doctor, but I sure wish I was still in bed." These are hallmarks of the common cold and the culprit for many a groggy fall or winter day.
According to Harvard Health, over 200 different viruses may cause this miserable but generally not too serious illness, but the most common by far are rhinoviruses, which are responsible for up to 40% of all colds. And contrary to popular belief, you can't catch a cold merely by getting chilled or wet — it takes exposure to someone infected with the virus or contact with contaminated surfaces to spread this common malady.
Once exposed to the virus, you'll generally start to show symptoms within one to three days and feel under the weather for anywhere from five to 10 days. While there's still no cure for the common cold, and no magical treatment to instantly dispel its symptoms, there's a variety of options for helping your body fight off the infection and feel a little better while doing so.
To help, we spoke to infectious disease specialist, Dr. Aimee Desrosiers, about the best home remedies and drug store medication capable of softening the agony of being under the weather. Some are even as simple as just getting a little more rest each night or drinking more fluids.
Here are some general tips for getting rid of a cold as quickly and comfortably as possible
Get plenty of rest
One of the best things to do when a cold strikes is to get as much rest as you can while your immune system gears up to battle the invading virus. When your symptoms are at their peak, skip that intensive exercise session and just take it easy. Stay in bed and sleep, or indulge in a binge-watching session while relaxing on the couch.
If a runny nose and any congestion are keeping you from getting some proper rest, look for products that use a combination of a nasal decongestant like phenylephrine and an antihistamine like diphenhydramine or doxylamine. We recommend something like Nyquil's Severe Cold and Flu or Robitussin Severe Multi-Symptom Cough, Cold, and Flu Nighttime.
Dr. Desrosiers says to "be sure to read the label carefully and make sure you aren't taking too much of the ingredients during the day." She also says to check with your doctor before taking powerful decongestants if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, thyroid problems, prostate issues or take MAOI medications for psychiatric disease or Parkinson's.
Drink lots of fluids
Congestion, mild fever, and fatigue make it very easy to become dehydrated, which leads to feeling even worse. Downing plenty of fluids helps keep you comfortable and may help your immune system function better.
That doesn't mean you should pour yourself alcohol, coffee, or soda, however. It's best to stick with water, small cups of juice, iced or hot tea, or other beverages that are easy on your stomach.
Run a humidifier
While you can catch a cold any time of year, they're more common during the winter, when the air tends to be dryer — and that makes your scratchy throat and congestion even worse. Add some moisture to the air with a cool-mist humidifier like the excellent ultrasonic model from Pure Enrichment, which is our top pick in our guide to the best humidifiers. You'll breathe a little easier, and feel a whole lot better.
While results are not entirely conclusive, there's some evidence that taking zinc lozenges within the first day or two of cold symptoms may potentially help shorten the duration of your illness by a day or more. Many people swear by Cold-Eeze lozenges to help ease the discomfort of a sore throat and cough while providing a reasonably tasty dose of zinc.
Relieve nasal congestion
A stuffy, runny nose is one of the primary symptoms of a cold and also the one likeliest to linger. While there are over-the-counter nasal decongestants that help shrink swollen nasal tissue, such as Mucinex Sinus-Max, these medications aren't recommended for those with high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, or thyroid disease, among other conditions. If you do use Mucinex's spray, try to limit use to three days. If you're looking for a safer alternative, go for a saline nasal spray like XLEAR Nasal Spray.
According to Dr. Desrosiers, it's also important to avoid zinc nasal sprays, if at all possible. The FDA itself warns against the use of these sprays and there's even a likelihood that they can cause a permanent loss of smell.
XLEAR Nasal Spray
Soothe a sore throat
For most people, a scratchy and sore throat is the first cold symptom to strike. While throat pain often eases up after the first day or so, you can make yourself far more comfortable by trying a saltwater gargle (dissolve ½-teaspoon of salt in a full glass of water), sucking on ice chips or throat lozenges, or reaching for an over-the-counter throat reliever like Chloraseptic to minimize the aches and scratchiness.
Treat your aches and pains
While a cold doesn't bring about the severe headache, high fever, and body pains of the flu, it can make you feel mildly achy and sore. Over-the-counter pain relievers like Aleve, Tylenol, and Advil are all very effective at reducing the discomfort.
Aleve Pain Reliever & Fever Reducer Caplets (24-count)
Tylenol Extra Strength Pain Reliever and Fever Reducer Caplets (24-count)
Advil Pain Reliever/Fever Reducer Tablets (24-count)
While there's no hard-and-fast evidence that it works to boost the immune system, many people do find that a spoonful of honey is an excellent way to quiet a cough and soothe a sore throat. Even the World Health Organization recommends giving children honey to act as an alternative to cough medicine — and yes, it's alright for adults, too, especially if you're not a huge fan of the taste of cough syrup.
If you do administer honey as a remedy, it's important to point out that you shouldn't give honey to children under the age of 12 months as it may contain the bacteria that causes infant botulism.
A few more recommendations
The following are a few more general recommendations from Dr. Desrosiers for what to do and what to keep in mind when you have a cold.
- When to seek medical help: If you have a fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit, start to feel chest pain, or have difficulty breathing, call and consult with your primary care doctor. You should also call a doctor if your cold isn't gone after two weeks, if it's so severe that you're bringing up colored phlegm, or if you're experiencing wheezing, shortness of breath, or your throat hurts so bad that you're unable to eat or drink.
- Yellow or green nasal discharge is normal: Though many clinicians may think yellow or green nasal discharge is cause for antibiotics, it's actually quite common to see this color of mucous with the common cold. However, if those symptoms last longer than 10 days, and you're experiencing a fever, facial, dental, or ear pain and aches, see a doctor to make sure you don't have something more serious like a sinus or ear infection.
- Don't ask for antibiotics: Antibiotics don't treat viruses (only bacteria) and may cause greater harm in terms of the side effects and bacterial resistance against antibiotics.
- Wear a mask when going outside: It's important to wear a mask when out in public in an effort to stop the spread of the common cold, as well as the flu and COVID-19.
- Keep your hands washed: It's highly recommended that you wash your hands often after blowing your nose, sneezing, coughing, or touching anything in public places.
- Stay socially distanced: As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, staying socially distanced (and socially isolated, if able) is crucial in helping curb the spread not just of COVID-19 but also of the common cold and flu.
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