How to Treat the Common Cold

Most colds are caused by the rhinovirus, resulting in sneezing, sore throat, cough, low-grade fever, headache or fatigue that can last up to two weeks. Most adults get two to three colds each year.

How it should be treated: You can manage symptoms with self-care, mostly with over-the-counter medicines. As many as 200 different viruses can cause colds, so no one drug exists to cure one. Your doctor may prescribe the nasal spray ipratropium bromide to relieve a runny nose. Colds can lead to complications like acute bacterial sinusitis, but taking antibiotics will neither prevent sinus infections nor improve cold symptoms.

What you can do: Nonprescription cromolyn sodium nasal sprays (NasalCrom), decongestants, antihistamines, cough suppressants and pain medications can help relieve cold symptoms. To minimize drug-related side effects and get maximum relief, consider a combination product that contains an antihistamine, analgesic and decongestant. Zinc supplements may reduce a cold’s duration if taken within 24 hours of symptom onset, but they can also trigger nausea and alter taste. Research does not support the use of herbal remedies like echinacea or vitamin C for cold prevention or treatment. A humidifier, cool mist vaporizer and warm, steamy showers can improve nasal congestion and runny nose. Rest and drink plenty of fluids.

When to call your doctor: If your temperature rises above 102° F, your symptoms last longer than 10 days or symptoms are severe or unusual, call your doctor to rule out something more serious such as pneumonia. If your cold symptoms are accompanied by severe muscle aches, intense fatigue or severe headache, you may have influenza; contact your doctor as some pre- scription antiviral medicine may reduce the severity and length of your symptoms.

If you use any prescription or over-the- counter drugs, ask your doctor or pharmacist whether they’ll interact with any of the suggested treatments. Carefully read and follow the directions on drug labels and beware of a drug’s side effects. For example, certain antihistamines like Benadryl are not recommended for people over age 65 because they may cause drowsiness and dizziness.

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HealthAfter50 was published by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, providing up-to-date, evidence-based research and expert advice on the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of a wide range of health conditions affecting adults in middle age and beyond. It was previously part of Remedy Health Media's network of digital and print publications, which also include HealthCentral; HIV/AIDS resources The Body and The Body Pro; the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; and the Berkeley Wellness website. All content from HA50 merged into in 2018.