Cold Symptom Relief

Cold Symptom Relief

Reviewed By:
David Slotnick, M.D.


Several remedies are available to reduce cold symptoms such as sneezing, a runny nose, watery eyes and coughing. These include various over-the-counter medications and self-care techniques.

Medications that may be used to relieve symptoms of the common cold include:

  • Decongestants. People with a stuffy nose may find relief by using an oral or nasal decongestant.
  • Pain relief medications (analgesics). These can help reduce some of the symptoms associated with the common cold, include aches, pain and fever.
  • Cough suppressants. Although some people use these medications to control or prevent coughing, experts generally advise against using them. Cough suppressants may prevent mucus from being expelled from the body.
  • Expectorants. People with congestion may use these drugs to thin mucus.
  • Antihistamines. Severe symptoms of a runny nose and watery eyes may be treated with antihistamines.

There are many other techniques that people can use aside from drugs to reduce symptoms associated with colds. For example, people with colds are urged to drink plenty of the right types of liquids (e.g., water, juice, clear broth, warm lemon water). People with colds also are urged to avoid smoking and to stay away from others while they smoke.

Other techniques for relieving cold symptoms include humidifying the air in the home, using saline nose drops or saltwater spray, and gargling with saltwater. For years, proponents have maintained that chicken soup can help relieve the symptoms of a cold. More recently the use of certain herbs and supplements, such as echinacea, has been suggested as a means of reducing cold symptoms. To date, scientists have not found conclusive evidence that these methods are effective.

About cold symptom relief

There is no cure for the common cold, a minor infection of the upper respiratory tract that can be caused by hundreds of different viruses. However, many remedies are available to try to reduce the symptoms that often accompany this illness.

Colds are among the most common illnesses in the United States. The National Institutes of Health estimates an average of 1 billion colds occur annually. Major symptoms associated with colds include a runny nose or stuffed-up nose, sneezing and watery eyes, sore throat and coughing.

People who have a runny nose often also experience postnasal drip. This is a thickening of the mucus that is naturally produced by the nose and sinuses and that travels in a thin film down the back of the throat. In some people, postnasal drip is significant enough to cause coughing, a sore throat or requires constant clearing of the throat.

Cold symptoms tend to appear about one to three days after the virus enters a person’s body and may include congestion, a runny or stuffy nose, and sneezing. These symptoms typically last for about a week before clearing, although some colds may persist for longer periods of time.

In many cases, symptoms related to colds do not require any treatment more substantial than occasionally blowing the nose into a tissue. However, in some cases, additional steps may be necessary to provide relief. There are various self-care remedies that can help reduce the effects of cold symptoms. In addition, various over-the-counter medications are available that can be helpful when used appropriately. However, none of these measures can cure a cold or shorten its duration.

Medications used for cold symptom relief

Many people who experience a cold use over-the-counter medications to treat their symptoms. These medications include:

  • Decongestants. People with a stuffy nose may find relief from using an oral decongestant, which provides relief by narrowing the blood vessels in the lining of the nose. Nasal spray decongestants also can be used. However, this form of medication can only be used for a limited amount of time – typically no more than three days – before it can cause “rebound” congestion, a condition resulting from dependence on the medication (and which causes the nasal passages to swell). In addition, some people may experience an increase in blood pressure after taking a decongestant.
  • Pain relief medications. These can help reduce some of the symptoms associated with the common cold, include aches, pain and fever.
  • Cough suppressants. Generally, experts maintain that cough suppressants are not necessary and should not be used. Not only are these medications largely ineffective, but the intent of suppressing a cough can actually prevent the body from clearing harmful mucus from the airway. Parents are advised not to give cough medication to children under age 14. Warm lemon water and honey is usually viewed as a better alternative (except for infants who should not be given honey).
  • Expectorants. Some cold medications contain expectorants which help to thin mucus. Thin mucus can be coughed up more easily, and helps to relieve symptoms in some patients.
  • Antihistamines. Severe symptoms of a runny nose and watery eyes may be treated with antihistamines. This drug counteracts the effect of histamine, a substance released by the body when people are exposed to substances to which they are allergic. Although antihistamines are intended to reduce the effects of an allergic reaction, some experts maintain that they are effective in drying up mucus in the nose produced by a cold and preventing watery eyes. Other experts say these drugs are likely to make a cold’s symptoms worse.

People are urged to use cold medications such as antihistamines, decongestants and expectorants carefully and only after consulting a physician. While these medications sometimes are effective in relieving a runny or stuffy nose, they will not cure a cold or shorten its duration. These medications may also cause side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, fatigue, upset stomach and insomnia.

In addition, these drugs may cause negative reactions in some situations, such as when combined with alcohol or various other medications. Medications such as decongestants can cause problems such as chronic inflammation of the mucous membranes when used incorrectly.

Young children may be especially vulnerable to such side effects and negative reactions. In addition, some medications should never be used by children. For example, aspirin use in children is associated with an increased risk of Reye syndrome, a potentially fatal illness that causes brain and liver damage.  Furthermore, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved the use of any cold or cough medications in children under the age of 2. These medications do not appear to be any more effective than placebo in children this young, and can be dangerous or fatal in some cases.

In addition, certain medical conditions may preclude the use of these drugs. For example, people with thyroid disease, high blood pressure and other conditions should not take decongestants.

Antibiotics are not useful in the treatment of the common cold. Colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria, and antibiotics are only effective against bacteria. Furthermore, inappropriate use of antibiotics may lead to an increase in drug-resistant strains of bacteria, making many conditions much more difficult to treat.

Other techniques for cold symptom relief

There are many techniques that people can use (aside from drugs) to alleviate the symptoms associated with colds. For example, people with colds are urged to drink plenty of the right types of liquids (e.g., water, juice, clear broth, warm lemon water). Eight glasses of water and/or juice per day are recommended to help keep the lining of the nose and throat from drying out. This will keep mucus moist and easier to clear from the nose. In contrast, dehydrating fluids should be avoided. These include alcohol and drinks that contain caffeine (coffee, tea or soft drinks).

People with colds also are urged to avoid smoking and to stay away from others while they smoke. Inhaling smoke further irritates the throat, causing increased coughing. Other techniques for reducing symptoms related to colds include:

  • Humidify the air. Dry air causes mucus to dry out and thicken and provides an atmosphere in which cold viruses thrive. A humidifier can help prevent this process from occurring. It is important to change the water in a humidifier daily and to wash it out according to the manufacturer’s instructions. This helps prevent the growth of mold. In addition, a humidifier should not be positioned in a way that mist gets into a person’s bedding, causing it to moisten. It is especially important to avoid moistening a baby’s bedding.
  • Use saline nose drops or saltwater spray. These can help loosen thick nasal mucus and remove irritants from the nasal passages. It also can moisten dry tender skin inside the nose. Unlike nasal decongestants, saline drops and sprays do not cause rebound congestion. A rubber-bulb syringe also can be used to keep a baby’s nasal passages clean. In using the syringe, parents should first squeeze the bulb to expel any trapped air. Then, they should:
    • Insert the tip of the bulb into the baby’s nostril no deeper than one-fourth to one-half of an inch. The bulb should be pointed toward the back of the nose.
    • Release the bulb so that it suctions mucus from the baby’s nose.
    • Remove the syringe and empty contents onto a tissue by squeezing rapidly while holding the bulb upside down.
    • Repeat if needed.

When finished using the bulb, it should be washed with soap and water. All of these products are commonly available in pharmacies.

  • Saltwater gargle. This can help relieve the sore throat that sometimes is associated with a cold. Saltwater solutions are made up of one-half teaspoon of salt mixed into an 8-ounce glass of warm water.
  • Hand washing. Washing hands frequently with soap and water helps prevent exposure to cold viruses. Regular washing of commonly used surfaces, such as a phone, will also help to prevent the spread of germs.

Usually, colds do not require the care of a physician and will disappear on their own within a week or so. Nonetheless, more people visit physicians in regard to colds than for any other illness, according to the American Lung Association. Many people also visit a physician if their symptoms are unusually severe or persist for long periods of time. Even so, there may be little a physician can do. Medications such as antibiotics have no effect on the common cold because colds are viral infections, and antibiotics are designed to kill bacteria – not viruses.   People who experience certain complications associated with colds may be treated with medications intended to relieve those illnesses. For example, in some patients cold viruses may weaken the immune system and can result in a bacterial ear infection that requires treatment with antibiotics.

Unproven methods of cold symptom relief

For hundreds of years, people have recommended chicken soup to reduce cold symptoms. Scientists have yet to find conclusive evidence that this technique actually works as intended. However, some studies have found that chicken soup may both speed up the movement of mucus through the nose and act as an anti-inflammatory by inhibiting the movement of immune system cells (neutrophils) involved in inflammation.

Regardless of chicken soup’s cold-fighting potential, eating healthy foods and drinking plenty of fluids can help a person to remain strong and hydrated, which at the very least will likely reduce feelings of illness and malaise.

Many supplements have been touted as having the powers to cure or prevent colds. These include echinacea, eucalyptus, garlic, honey, lemon, menthol, zinc, and vitamin C. To date, none of these products has been proven to cure common cold symptoms.

Questions for your doctor about symptom relief

Preparing questions in advance can help patients to have more meaningful discussions with their physicians regarding their conditions and treatments. Patients may wish to ask their doctor the following questions related to cold symptoms relief:

  1. Should I take an over-the-counter medication for my symptoms?
  2. How long can I safely take this medication?
  3. What are the side effects of this medication?
  4. Should I take an oral decongestant instead of a nasal spray?
  5. What is your opinion about using antihistamines for cold relief?
  6. Is it harmful for me to take a cough suppressant?
  7. What types of liquids should I consume when I have a cold?
  8. Do you recommend eating chicken soup or taking a supplement of some type?
  9. What type of humidifier do you recommend?
  10. How should I clean my humidifier?
Scroll to Top