How can a cold be treated?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

In most cases, the treatment for both colds and the flu is simple: rest and fluids. Medications can be used to treat specific symptoms during this time. For example, decongestants can be used for nasal congestion while acetaminophen and ibuprofen may be used for fever and aches. A humidifier may be helpful for reducing congestion and other symptoms.

If you have influenza and are at risk of developing complications, your doctor may prescribe a prescription antiviral medication to help shorten the length of time you experience symptoms, and help you avoid complications such as pneumonia.

For a cold, we can find out its cause—maybe a specific virus—but we’ll still usually focus on treating your symptoms: if you need decongestants, we can prescribe them. If you have a running nose, we can give you medication to lessen your secretions.

Stacy Wiegman, PharmD
Pharmacy Specialist

There are many cold and flu remedies, both alternative and medicinal. While many medications and treatments can relieve the cold and flu, they cannot cure the cold and flu. The cold and flu are viral and must run their course before you experience relief. Types of medications that may relieve the symptoms of the cold and flu include decongestants, analgesics (pain relievers), antihistamines, antitussives (cough suppressants), and antipyretics (fever reducers).

Dr. Peter N. Mattar, MD
Family Practitioner

There is no cure for the common cold. It is caused by a virus, which is contagious through airborne particles through sneezing, coughing, or close contact. Unfortunately, antibiotics do not help remedy the common cold. These are saved for bacterial causes of sickness like pneumonia, bronchitis, ear infection, and sinusitis.

Colds are "treated" by allowing your body to rest and drinking plenty of fluids. Your doctor may recommend a cough medicine with codeine to help you rest. By attaining the rest your body needs, your body's immune system is better capable of fighting off the virus.

Colds are caused by germs called viruses and do not need to be treated with antibiotics. Try these things:

  • Stay home and rest.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Use medicines for fever or aches and pains. Try acetaminophen (like Tylenol) or ibuprofen (like Advil). Do not give aspirin to a child or teen—it increases the risk for a serious problem called Reye's syndrome.
  • Try cold medicine. Talk with your doctor about the best medicine for your symptoms. Do not give cough medicine to children under 4 years old.
Dr. Leigh Vinocur, MD
Emergency Medicine Specialist

There are no medicines or vaccines for the common cold because a single virus doesn’t cause it. The common cold is somewhat of a misnomer.  There are over 200 different viruses that cause the “common” cold.  Over half of them are a type of virus called the rhinovirus and there are almost 100 different types of rhinoviruses!  That is why we can send a man to the moon but we can’t cure a common cold. All these heterogeneous distinct viruses make it difficult to develop a vaccine to prevent the cold or even an antiviral drug to combat it. Only over the counter medications can be used to reduce some of the symptoms of the cold.

Because the flu is more homogenous and uniform when compared to the cold, we have been able to develop antiviral medications. These medications can help prevent the flu if you take them after exposure but before you get sick, or they can help shorten the course of the illness (but only by a day or so). However, most healthy people don’t need antiviral medicine; they are a good idea for individuals at high-risk for experiencing serious complications from the flu. Those are people with compromised immune systems, chronic illnesses such as diabetes, or respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.