The common cold is a common nuisance. All that sniffling, sneezing, and aching can leave you feeling miserable for days.
It's no surprise that colds are one of the most frequent reasons for missed work and school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The common cold is a viral infection which affects the upper respiratory tract (the nose, sinuses, throat). Symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, coughing, headaches and body aches, and people usually recover within seven to 10 days.
More than 200 viruses can can cause a cold, but rhinovirus is the most common, per the CDC. These viruses can transmit easily from person to person and spread like wildfire through homes, classrooms, or offices.
Every year, millions of people in the U.S. get sick with the common cold — adults get an average of two to three colds each year and kids get even more.
What gets rid of a cold fast?
There is no cure for the common cold or way to get rid of a cold quickly, the experts note.
“Colds are due to viruses for which we really don’t have any cure or way to truly treat, so what we rely on are various methods to alleviate some symptoms,” Dr. Erich Voigt, clinical associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at NYU Langone Health told TODAY.
Most of the time, the cold will run its course and people will get better on their own, without any remedies, said Voigt. “The old statement, ‘If you treat a cold, it’ll go away in a week, and if you don’t treat it, it’ll go away in seven days,’ is reality,” Voigt says.
Although there are countless supplements and medicines sold in drugstores which claim to help shorten the duration of symptoms, the science to back these claims up is often lacking, the experts note.
"There is limited high quality evidence to support specific remedies for the common cold, in particular among children," Dr. Richard Chung, pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist at Duke Health, told TODAY. “Colds will always be somewhat uncomfortable.”
There are ways to help manage symptoms and feel better while your body fights off the cold, the experts note — but first, make sure you're treating the right thing.
“The first step in getting over a common cold is to ensure that it’s actually a common cold,” Dr. Stuart C. Ray, vice chair of medicine for data integrity and analytics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told TODAY.
“A common cold doesn’t cause fever, shortness of breath, severe pain, complete loss of taste or smell, or a rash. … If an illness has one of the features above, it’s probably not a common cold, and medical advice should be considered,” Ray said, stressing the importance of talking to your healthcare provider.
Allergies, influenza, and COVID-19 can also cause symptoms that may seem like the common cold, Ray added. “Rapid (COVID-19) testing should be considered if getting together with others when you have cold symptoms,” said Ray.
Most colds go away within a week to 10 days, the experts note, so if symptoms last longer, it’s time to see a doctor.
What doesn't help a cold?
When it comes to colds, there are many things that won't help you feel better, but the experts emphasize avoiding several in particular.
Antibiotics are medications used to treat or prevent infections caused by bacteria. As previously mentioned, the common cold is caused by a viral infection. “Bacteria are very different from viruses,” said Voigt, and therefore so are the treatments.
“Unless there is a bacterial infection complicating matters, antibiotics are not needed to treat a cold and can cause unnecessary harm,” Chung added.
Antibiotics can cause side effects ranging from a mild rash or diarrhea to severe allergic reactions and antibiotic-resistant infections, per the CDC.
Alcohol and caffeine
Unfortunately, that morning coffee or evening glass of wine should probably wait until you no longer feel sick.
“It’s important to avoid alcohol, coffee and caffeinated drinks, which can make dehydration much worse and you are experiencing a cold,” Dr. Jay-Sheree Allen, a board-certified family medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic, told TODAY.
Smoking or vaping
“It would not be advisable to smoke or vape when you’re sick because that can just contribute to the inflammation, cough and irritation of the airway,” said Voigt.
What is the best medicine for a cold?
“There are countless cold medicines out there, so when you look at labels, you want to be careful to see what ingredients are in them,” Voigt said.
These include analgesics or NSAIDs for pain, decongestants, expectorants, antihistamines or cough suppressants, the experts noted. “A lot of cold products have a lot of these combined together,” said Voigt.
The right over-the-counter medicine to take will depend on the symptoms you are trying to treat and whether it's safe for the individual, the experts note. Some people cannot take certain over-the-counter medicines if they have underlying health conditions or take other medications.
Over-the-counter medicines to treat cold symptoms should not be given to children under the age of two, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Chung added that while over-the-counter medicine can be used in kids to manage pain and fever, in general, parents should not manage their children’s cold symptoms in the same way they manage their own. “Children are different and the risks and benefits of specific treatments are also different,” Chung said.
Always talk to a doctor or pharmacist before starting over-the-counter medications for colds or if you have any questions.
Over-the-counter pain relievers
Over-the-counter pain relievers can help with the body aches and headaches associated with colds, said Voigt.
“Analgesics like acetaminophen and NSAIDS like ibuprofen … should be used in moderation (according to the label) given their side effects,” said Ray.
Decongestants can help you feel less stuffed up by reducing swelling in the nasal passages, said Voigt.
These include oral decongestants like pseudoephedrine, which does not require a prescription but is sold "behind the counter" at the pharmacy. Pseudoephedrine can be highly effective in relieving congestion, but it can also raise the heart rate and blood pressure or increase anxiety, said Voigt. “If you have any heart disease or blood pressure problems, then you may want to avoid those,” Voigt added.
Decongestants with an antihistamine “can help if used for just a few days and according to the label,” said Ray.
Decongestants are also available in spray form, including oxymetazoline — but this should only be used for a maximum of three days because rebound swelling can occur, Voigt added.
Recently, the FDA declared a common decongestant in many over-the-counter oral cold medications called phenylephrine ineffective, NBC News previously reported. The drugstore chain CVS recently announced that it was pulling medications that contain phenylephrine as the only active ingredient from its shelves, Dr. Natalie Azar reported on TODAY on Oct. 24. Although CVS has decided to pull these medications, the FDA has not ruled to revoke the drug's OTC designation, Azar said. There are no safety concerns with taking these medications, but they may not be effective, Azar explained.
Expectorants like guaifenesin can thin mucus in the sinuses or chest, making easier to clear out of the airways, experts note. Cough suppressants like dextromethorphan can help if you’re coughing through the night, for example, said Voigt.
“Infants and young children should generally avoid taking over-the-counter cough medications as there are potential adverse effects but no proven benefits,” Dr. Jason Nagata, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, told TODAY.
What are the best remedies for cold symptoms?
While there is no cure for the common cold, there are ways to alleviate cold symptoms, support your body as it recovers, and feel less terrible. According to doctors, these are the best remedies that probably can't hurt to try next time you're sick with a cold.
Stay home if you feel sick
“If you have a cold, you should stay home until you’re feeling better,” said Voigt. Not only can this help you rest and recover, but it also prevents you from spreading the cold to others. “The contagious part of colds is typically when the person has a runny nose or when they’re coughing and sneezing,” Voigt added.
“Back in the pre-COVID era, many people went to work sick with a cold and they would spread the cold around the office. … That actually leads to a lot of decreased productivity and a lot of lost time at work,” said Voigt. The common cold is actually the main reason children miss school and adults miss work in the U.S., according to the CDC.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
“My number one advice for getting over a cold is staying hydrated. … We underestimate the importance of this basic strategy,” said Allen. “Whether it’s water, juice, clear broth or warm lemon water with honey, getting over a cold will be easier if we’re not dehydrated,” Allen added.
Staying hydrated can also help loosen up all that mucus causing your congestion, Voigt noted.
“Mucus can start to get very thick in our body and we need hydration to keep it flowing,” said Voigt. “If it gets super thick and dense … that can lead to complications of a cold such as a sinus infection or bronchitis, so you really want to keep yourself well hydrated,” said Voigt.
Get enough sleep
Sleep is always important, but even more so when you’re trying to get over a cold.
“Get plenty of sleep to keep your immune system fighting, (and) do this consistently for a few days,” Dr. Mike Ren, assistant professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told TODAY.
Try not to lie down in bed all day
“Let your body rest, but don’t let yourself lie in bed all day, because lying in bed all day can lead to complications from the cold,” said Ray.
“When you have mucus in your lungs and you’re not mobilizing and coughing it out and breathing nice and deeply, you can develop pneumonia (for example),” said Voigt, adding that sitting or lying in bed for too long could also lead to a blood clot in the legs.
Get out and moving if you can
“Maintain exercise (light to moderate level) rather than daytime bedrest if you're not exhausted to help with recovery,” said Ray. Walking is a comfortable, familiar workout that offers a number of physical and mental health benefits.
It doesn't hurt to get out in the fresh air and sunshine, either.
But remember not to go too hard, the experts note. “You (still) want to let your body recover by resting and not overexerting yourself, so when you’re sick, you should not go and run 10 miles,” said Voigt.
Use a saline nasal spray
“Saline nasal spray can help with congestion and is safe if used according to the label,” said Ray. These sprays can help clear mucus out of your nose, said Voigt, and just help provide some moisture and relief.
Avoid spraying zinc in the nose, because that can cause loss of sense of smell, said Ray.
Try a saline rinse
Saline rinses can also help clear your sinuses. These may come in a small squeeze bottle that allows you to squirt the saline into the nose or a “neti pot” where you pour the saline into your nose then let gravity and movement of the head do the work, said Voigt.
“However, if the nose is really in that congested stuffy phase, a lot of that saltwater can’t even get in, so you may want to use your decongestants in the bad stuffy phase and then the saline once your nose is opened up to wash out the mucus,” Voigt added.
Crank up the humidity
“I encourage long, steamy showers or a steam inhaler to get steam up into the nose and sinuses into the lungs so that you keep the mucus flowing and keep it fluid,” said Voigt.
Humidifiers are also a great way to increase the moisture in the air of your room or home while you’re recovering. According to Chung, cool-mist humidifiers are recommended for children.
Soothe your throat with honey
“One of the most proven remedies for the cough of a chest cold is honey,” Dr. Cory Fisher, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic, told TODAY. The more local, the better, he added.
“The mechanism of cough suppression is not well understood, but honey has been shown to have both anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. ... It may also just be that it coats a sore throat,” Fisher said. According to Chung, honey can be helpful for a cough in kids over the age of 1.
In previous head-to-head studies, honey either did as well or outperformed certain cough medicines, Dr. John Torres, NBC News senior medical correspondent, said in a TODAY segment aired Oct. 28, 2022.
Warm up with hot soups and tea
“The most important things are food, fluids, rest and repeat!,” said Ren. “My go-to is a large bowl of chicken noodle soup with added veggies and a few hard-boiled eggs for extra protein.”
“There’s probably a little bit of help from some hot tea … because the steam from those hot beverages will go up into your nose and sinuses, and the steam is helpful,” said Voigt.
“Add some ginger, lemon or honey (to the tea) to soothe your throat,” said Ren.
Eat more ginger
The flavorful root is a great herbal remedy, and it can add some extra spice to teas, broths, soups, curries and more. Ginger is packed with antioxidants, and its anti-mucus properties can really help with the congestion by colds, Torres told the TODAY show in an Oct. 28, 2022 segment.
Bottom line: Listen to your body
“The focus of treatment (if any are used) should be achieving adequate comfort and avoiding unnecessary costs and harms from treatments that aren’t truly needed,” Chung said.
You should also watch for complications (such as a bacterial sinus infection, ear infection, or pneumonia) and communicate with your health care provider if you get concerned, Chung added.