A cold can sneak up on you at any time of the year, and when it does, you’ll want to attack it head-on with the right remedies. Even though most people recover from the common cold in about seven to 10 days, reducing symptom severity is key to staying comfortable while the virus runs its course.
If you’re experiencing a runny nose, sore throat, sneezing, coughing, body aches, stuffy nose, or a scratchy throat, you might be wondering what you can do to start feeling better right away.
The good news? There are plenty of cold remedies like an over-the-counter (OTC) decongestant nasal spray, neti pot, or a humidifier that can provide immediate relief and kickstart the healing process. Plus, it’s easy to add several of these remedies to an overall wellness routine.
Here, we take a deep dive into how to treat a cold, remedies you can try at home—including 12 natural cold remedies and four over-the-counter and prescription medication treatments—and when to see a healthcare provider for cold symptoms.
12 home remedies for cold symptoms
Several respiratory viruses, including rhinoviruses, respiratory syncytial virus, adenovirus, human metapneumovirus, and human parainfluenza virus, cause the common cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you’re dealing with a cold virus, consider trying one or more of the following home remedies.
1. Drink plenty of fluids
“Staying well-hydrated helps thin out mucus and makes it easier to clear nasal congestion or cough up sputum,” says Julia Blank, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. She recommends water, juice, tea, or broth, but make sure you avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can dehydrate you.
2. Use a cool-mist humidifier
Another useful remedy is to moisturize the air with a cool-mist humidifier, which can clear nasal passages and help loosen congestion, says Dr. Blank. Whenever possible, use distilled water instead of tap water, set the unit to 30% to 50% humidity, and always follow the directions that come with the unit.
3. Eat chicken noodle soup
Chicken noodle soup might be good for the soul, but it’s also an excellent home remedy for a simple cold. “Chicken soup helps with hydration, the warm fluid can help soothe a sore throat, and cysteine—an amino acid in chicken soup—may help thin mucus and ease congestion,” explains Dr. Blank.
4. Ramp up your rest
Getting plenty of rest when you’re sick is important for your immune system to be able to fight off cold viruses. Adults should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night as well as naps during the day. Kids need nine to 12 hours and teens should get eight to 10 hours each night.
5. Soothe a sore throat with lozenges
To help temporarily soothe a sore throat, Dr. Blank recommends throat lozenges. “Menthol lozenges can temporarily clear nasal passages and soothe a sore throat.”
6. Gargle with salt water
If you’re dealing with a sore and scratchy throat, consider gargling with salt water. Dr. Blank says this old-school home remedy can help to temporarily relieve throat discomfort. Mix a teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water. Take a drink, but do not swallow, and gargle in the back of your throat for 10 to 30 seconds. Spit it out when done.
7. Drink warm fluids
“You want to thin the mucus in the throat and nose, and warm fluids help do that,” says Payel Gupta, MD, a triple board-certified doctor in pediatrics, allergy and immunology, and internal medicine. Plus, warm drinks are soothing. Warm lemon water, clear broth, and warm tea are all good choices.
8. Have some honey
Coughing at night interrupts sleep and makes it difficult to get any rest. If you’ve already taken an OTC cough or cold medicine but still need some relief, try a spoonful of honey. Not only does honey help soothe a sore throat, but Dr. Blank says it also temporarily eases a cough.
9. Breathe in some steam
Dr. Gupta recommends steam when battling a cold. Use a vaporizer or make a tent out of a towel as you sit over a bowl of hot water and breathe in the steam, which is soothing and helps loosen mucus and phlegm. “Just make sure you’re not sitting too close to the bowl, and the steam isn’t burning delicate mucus membranes,” Dr. Gupta advises.
10. Use a neti pot
Neti pots are generally considered safe to use for sinus issues such as the common cold. Also called a nasal irrigation device, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends using distilled or sterile water, boiled and cooled tap water, or water passed through a filter. They also say to add a saline solution to the water, which helps minimize irritation as the water passes through the nasal passages. Dr. Gupta recommends using a neti-pot to irrigate the sinuses about once a day. “This will lessen post-nasal drip, which causes coughs and irritates the throat,” she says. Just make sure you disinfect the neti pot every time you use it.
11. Take an elderberry supplement
Elderberry supplements may help to reduce the severity and duration of cold symptoms. However, Dr. Blank points out that the mechanism of action is not clear. It may play a role in the body’s immune reaction to cold and flu viruses. According to a 2016 randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial, air travelers using elderberry 10 days before travel until four to five days after arriving at their destination experienced a two-day shorter duration of the cold and also noticed a reduction in cold symptoms.
12. Consume zinc
Results from a 2012 systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that zinc formulations such as lozenges, tablets, or syrup may reduce the duration of a cold by about one day, especially when taken within 24-48 hours of the onset of symptoms.
Cold remedies that don’t work
There are many time-tested and proven remedies for treating cold symptoms. However, there are also several that lack evidence or expert support to warrant using them when dealing with a cold.
Vitamin C has a long list of health benefits, but unfortunately, says Blank, treating a cold is not one of them. “Most studies show no benefit in taking vitamin C after the onset of cold symptoms,” she says. However, Dr. Blank does point out that taking vitamin C before cold symptoms start may help shorten the duration of the illness. “This may benefit people who are at high risk because of frequent exposure, such as children in daycare or adults who work with small children,” she says.
“Antibiotics are for fighting bacteria, not viruses that cause colds,” says Dr. Blank. In fact, she points out that antibiotics won’t help you get well faster and can cause side effects. Inappropriate use of antibiotics leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
How to treat a cold when natural remedies don’t work
When natural remedies fail to curb cold symptoms, it might be time to try an OTC product or prescription medication for the common cold. While not an exhaustive list, here are four treatments to consider.
1. Ask your doctor about Atrovent
Dr. Blank says Atrovent (ipratropium) nasal spray can help to reduce the severity and duration of cold symptoms. Parents of young children or pregnant women should talk to their doctor about the safety of Atrovent.
2. Pain relievers to the rescue
OTC pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) are often recommended when dealing with cold symptoms like fever or pain. Both types of pain relievers are safe for children to take. Make sure to follow the instructions for age and weight and consult your healthcare provider if you have questions. If you’re pregnant, the FDA recommends avoiding nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, especially at 20 weeks and beyond.
3. OTC cough and cold medicine
There are several over-the-counter cough and cold medicines for adults and children 12 and over. Dr. Blank says if your child is under 12, you should consult with your pediatrician on what to take. Additionally, if you have underlying medical conditions like high blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, heart disease, or anxiety, or you’re on any prescription medication, she says to talk to your healthcare provider before taking any OTC medication. With that in mind, Blank says the following OTC cough and cold medicines can help relieve symptoms:
- Decongestants that contain pseudoephedrine can help with nasal congestion.
- Mucus-thinning medications that contain guaifenesin (a cough expectorant) can temporarily ease nasal and chest congestion and make it easier to clear secretions.
- Antihistamines like Claritin or Zyrtec can help runny nose and sneezing by drying nasal passages and secretions.
Some OTC cough and cold medicines are safe to take while pregnant. These include the decongestant Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) after the first trimester, the cough suppressant Robitussin (dextromethorphan), and the antihistamine Benadryl (diphenhydramine). Always consult with your healthcare provider before taking any OTC medication while pregnant.
4. Treat your nose to a nasal spray
“Nasal saline spray can help loosen secretions and temporarily relieve nasal congestion,” says Dr. Blank. Follow the directions that come with the product. Using a spray the right way increases its effectiveness.
While the duration of your symptoms may vary, many people wonder how to cure a cold in 24 hours or even overnight. The best way to tame a cold fast is to stay home, rest, drink plenty of fluids, gargle with salt water, take an OTC medication, and humidify the air.
When to see a healthcare provider for cold symptoms
Most mild to moderate cold symptoms are treatable with home remedies. However, there are times when seeing a healthcare provider is warranted. “Some people are at increased risk of developing complications such as secondary bacterial infections after getting a cold,” says Dr. Blank. This includes smokers, people with asthma or COPD, and anyone with a compromised immune system. If you fall into a high-risk category, she recommends seeing your healthcare provider if symptoms are more severe or last longer than you’d expect from a cold.
She also says to see a healthcare provider if you develop symptoms that suggest something more serious than a cold, like COVID-19, such as:
- High fever
- Shortness of breath
- Severe headache
- Symptoms lasting longer than 10 days—especially if they are not getting better
Additionally, moderate to severe cold symptoms in young children are best treated by a medical provider specializing in pediatrics.
It’s also important to know how to identify flu symptoms—especially during flu season—so that you can get timely medical treatment. While most respiratory infections like a cold typically subside within seven to 10 days, infectious diseases like the flu can cause serious health problems.
Some of the more common signs of the flu to be aware of include fever, chills, headache, sore throat, body aches, dry cough, and fatigue. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, see your healthcare provider immediately so they can treat and recommend various flu remedies.