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What are colds?
Colds are a common illness caused by many different viruses. They usually last 1 to 2 weeks. They can cause a stuffy nose, a sore throat, and a cough. You can catch a cold at any time of year, but they're more common in late winter and early spring. There's no cure for colds.
What are the symptoms?
Lots of different viruses cause colds, but the symptoms are usually the same. They include:
- 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 isn't the same as influenza (flu). 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.
How can you care for yourself?
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 (post-nasal 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.
Using medicines safely
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 medicines can cause problems for people who have certain health problems, such as asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, or an enlarged prostate (BPH). They may also interact with sedatives, certain antidepressants, and other medicines. Read the package carefully, or ask your pharmacist or doctor to help you choose.
Giving cough and cold medicines to children
Be careful with cough and cold medicines. Don't give them to children younger than 6. 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.
Alternative medicines or natural health products
Some people try natural health products to prevent colds or to shorten their cold symptoms. Before you use any treatment for your cold symptoms, make sure to think about the risks and benefits of the treatment.
Some of the medicines being studied are:
Study results differ about whether echinacea can keep you from getting a cold or can help you get better faster. It 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 doesn't 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. More studies must be done to find out how much vitamin C is needed to reduce the length of time that cold symptoms last.
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 natural health product, follow these precautions:
- As with all conventional medicines and natural health products, make sure to follow the directions on the label.
- Don't take more than the maximum recommended dose.
- If you are or could be pregnant, talk with your doctor before you take any medicine or natural health product.
- If you have another health problem or take prescription medicines, talk with your doctor before you take an alternative medicine or natural health product.
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're 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.
- Don't smoke. Smoking makes it easier to get a cold and harder to get rid of one.
When should I call for help?
Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:
- You have severe trouble breathing.
Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:
- You seem to be getting much sicker.
- You have new or worse trouble breathing.
- You have a new or higher fever.
- You have a new rash.
Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse call line if:
- You have a new symptom, such as a sore throat, an earache, or sinus pain.
- You cough more deeply or more often, especially if you notice more mucus or a change in the colour of your mucus.
- You do not get better as expected.
- Comforting a Child Who Has a Respiratory Illness
- Coughs, Age 11 and Younger
- Coughs, Age 12 and Older
- Difference Between Influenza (Flu) and a Cold
- Influenza (Seasonal Flu)
- Protecting Your Child From Infections
- Respiratory Problems, Age 11 and Younger
- Respiratory Problems, Age 12 and Older
- Sore Throat and Other Throat Problems
- Singh M, Das RR (2011). Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (3).
- Davidson TM, Smith WM (2010). The Bradford Hill criteria and zinc-induced anosmia: A causality analysis. Archives of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, 136(7): 673–676.
Current as of:
July 1, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
John Pope MD - Pediatrics
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
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