A cold is an upper respiratory infection caused by a virus. Colds tend to occur most often in winter, although scientists are not sure why. In the United States, adults usually have 2 colds per year, and children have at least 6.
There is no foolproof way to prevent a cold and no way to cure it. But you can treat the symptoms. Colds tend to last about a week, and can be accompanied by sore throat and cough. Unlike the flu, colds don't usually cause a high fever (above 102°F [38.8°C]).
Signs and Symptoms
Colds are caused by more than 100 different viruses, although most colds are caused by rhinoviruses. Young children with respiratory symptoms often spread rhinovirus. You can get a cold by touching a person with a cold (for example, by shaking hands) and then touching your nose or eyes, or by touching a surface that a person with a cold has touched, such as a telephone or keyboard. Colds are also transmitted through the air, when someone with a cold coughs or sneezes. Stress may increase your risk of catching a cold. Although you are more likely to get a cold in winter, exposure to cold, outdoor air does not increase your risk of getting sick.
People more likely to get colds include:
Most people treat colds without seeing a doctor. If you do see a doctor, he or she will make a diagnosis based on your symptoms and exam. The doctor may take a throat culture to rule out strep throat. If you have an underlying lung condition, such as asthma or emphysema, you should let your doctor know right away when you get a cold.
Although anyone can get a cold, there are things you can do to boost your immunity and make you less susceptible.
With a cold, the goal of treatment is to improve your symptoms as quickly as possible. But even if you do nothing, they should go away within a week to 10 days. Antibiotics cannot treat your cold. However, there are medications, herbs, supplements, and homeopathic remedies that may make you feel better while you have a cold.
A number of over-the-counter medications are available to help treat cold symptoms. You should not give children under the age of 6 any over-the-counter cold or cough medicine unless your pediatrician tells you to do so.
Decongestants help open your nasal passages so you can breathe easier. However, if decongestant nasal sprays or drops are used for more than 3 days, they can cause congestion to come back and get worse. Decongestants are often combined in cold medicines with antihistamines, cough suppressants, and pain relievers. People with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, or glaucoma should not take decongestants. Popular brands of decongestants include Sudafed, Afrin, and Neo-Synephrine.
Antihistamines can temporarily relieve a runny nose by drying up nasal secretions. Non-drowsy antihistamines that are available over-the-counter include loratadine (Claritin), fexofenadine (Allegra), and cetirizine (Zyrtec).
Cough suppressants (for a dry cough) or expectorants (for a wet, productive cough that brings up mucous) are available over the counter and by prescription.
Pain relievers, such as aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) can be used for fever, body aches, and headaches. Children under age 19 should not take aspirin due to the risk of a rare but serious illness called Reye syndrome.
Nutrition and Dietary Supplements
Since supplements may have side effects or interact with medications, you should take them only under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care provider. Be sure to talk to your doctor about any supplements you are taking or considering taking.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. However, herbs can trigger side effects, and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of a health care practitioner. Before giving any herbs to a child to treat a cold, talk to your pediatrician.
Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea). Although evidence on whether echinacea works to prevent or treat colds has been mixed, recent research is encouraging. An analysis of 14 scientific studies found that people who took echinacea reduced their risk of getting a cold by 58 percent, and reduced the duration of a cold by an average of a day and a half. However, many of the studies used echinacea in combination with another herb or vitamin. Therefore, it is impossible to say that echinacea was responsible for the benefit. Plus, there is significant variation in echinacea products. So use caution before taking a supplement. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, people who have autoimmune diseases, or people taking drugs that suppress the immune system (such as corticosteroids or methotrexate) should not take echinacea without asking their doctors first. People who are allergic to ragweed, or who have an autoimmune disease, should ask their doctors before taking echinacea.
In addition to echinacea, several other herbs that are used to strengthen the immune system may also be beneficial in preventing you from catching a cold. As is true with echinacea, you should not take these herbs if you are taking drugs to suppress their immune system.
Although few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths may consider the following remedies for the treatment of the common cold based on their knowledge and experience. In homeopathic medicine, cold symptoms represent the body's natural way of eliminating a virus. For this reason, homeopathic doctors may recommend no treatment at all. If they do choose a remedy, it is usually intended to boost the body's natural immune response. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type. A constitutional type is defined as a person's physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment for each individual.
A study of a small number of university students suggests that practicing relaxation techniques on a regular basis may help reduce the duration of a cold or the flu. A similar study of children reached the same conclusion. Some good stress reduction techniques include meditation, deep relaxation, yoga, tai chi, and breathing exercises.
Tell your health care provider if you are pregnant or think you might be pregnant. Some medications, herbs, and supplements may be harmful to your baby and should not be taken if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant.
If you have asthma, emphysema, or any other respiratory disease, you should talk to your doctor as soon as you develop cold symptoms.
Warnings and Precautions
If your symptoms are not better in 7 to 10 days, you should call your doctor. Other reasons to see your doctor include high fever (above 102°F [38.8°C]), thick, green nasal discharge, or development of a productive cough (cough with phlegm), especially if it is thick and green as well.
Prognosis and Complications
Colds usually get better within 7 to 10 days. Some potential complications include:
Alvarez-Olmos MI. Probiotic agents and infectious diseases: a modern perspective on a traditional therapy. Clin Infect Dis. 2001;32(11):1567-76.
Audera C, Patulny RV, Sander BH, Douglas RM. Mega-dose vitamin C in treatment of the common cold: a randomised controlled trial. Med J Aust. 2001;175(7):359-62.
Ballengee CR, Turner RB. Supportive treatment for children with the common cold. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2014;26(1):114-8.
Barrett BP, Brown RL, Locken K, Maberry R, Bobula JA, D'Alessio D. Treatment of the common cold with unrefined Echinacea: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Ann Intern Med. 2002;137:936-46.
Belongia EA, Berg R, Liu K. A randomized trial of zinc nasal spray for the treatment of upper respiratory illness in adults. Am J Med. 2001;111(2):103-8.
Caruso TJ, Prober CG, Gwaltney JM. Treatment of naturally acquired common colds with zinc: a structured review. Clin Infect Dis. 2007;45(5):569-74.
Cohen S, Hamrick N, Rodriquez MS, Feldman PJ, Rabin BS, Manuck SB. Reactivity and vulnerability to stress-associated risk for upper respiratory illness. Psychosom Med. 2002;64(2):302-10.
das RR, Singh M. Oral zinc for the common cold. JAMA. 2014;311(14):1440-1.
de Vrese M, Winkler P, Rautenberg P, Harder T, Noah C, Laue C, et al. Probiotic bacteria reduced duration and severity but not the incidence of common cold episodes in a double blind, randomized, controlled trial. Vaccine. 2006 Nov 10;24(44-46):6670-4.
Douglas RM, Chalker EB, Treacy B. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2000;(2):CD000980.
Fashner J, Ericson K, Werner S. Treatment of the common cold in children and adults. Am Fam Physician. 2012; 86(2):153-9
Glatthaar-Saalmuller B, Sacher F, Esperester A. Antiviral activity of an extract derived from roots of Eleutherococcus senticosus. Antiviral Res. 2001;50(3):223-8.
Hambridge M. Human zinc deficiency. J Nutr. 2000;130(5S suppl):1344S-9S.
Hatakka K, Savilahti, Ponka A, et al. Effect of long term consumption of probiotic milk on infections in children attending day care centers: double-blind, randomized trial. BMJ. 2001;322(7298):1327.
Hewson-Bower B, Drummond PD. Psychological treatment for recurrent symptoms of colds and flu in children. J Psychosom Res. 2001;51(1):369-77.
Hirt M, Nobel Sion, Barron E. Zinc nasal gel for the treatment of common cold symptoms: A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. ENT J. 2000;79(10):778-80, 782.
Jaber R. Respiratory and allergic diseases: from upper respiratory tract infections to asthma. Prim Care. 2002;29(2):231-61.
Jackson JL, Lesho E, Peterson C. Zinc and the common cold: a meta-analysis revisited. J Nutr. 2000;130(5S Suppl):1512S-5S.
Josling P. Preventing the common cold with a garlic supplement: a double blind, placebo-controlled survey. Adv Ther. 2001;18(4):189-93.
Karsch-Volk M, Barrett B, Kiefer D, Bauer R, Ardjomand-Woelkart K, Linde K. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014; 2:CD000530.
Karsch-Volk M, Barrett B, Linde K. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. JAMA. 2015;313(6):618-9.
Kassel JC, King D, Spurling GK. Saline nasal irrigation for acute upper respiratory tract infections. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010 Mar 17;(3):CD006821. Review.
Kligler B. Echinacea. Am Fam Physician. 2003;67(1):77-80.
Leyer GJ, Li S, Mubasher ME, et al. Probiotic effects on cold and influenza-like symptom incidence and duration in children. Pediatrics. 2009;124:e172-e179.
Lindenmuth GF, Lindenmuth EB. The efficacy of echinacea compound herbal tea preparation on the severity and duration of upper respiratory and flu symptoms: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study. J Altern Complement Med. 2000;6(4):327-34.
Lissiman E, Bhasale AL, Cohen M. Garlic for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014;11:CD006206.
Long S. Long: Principles and Practice of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders. 2012.
Maggini S, Beveridge S, Suter M. A combination of high-dose vitamin C plus zinc for the common cold. J Int Med Res. 2012;40(1):28-42.
Mahady GB. Echinacea: recommendations for its use in prophylaxis and treatment of upper respiratory tract infections. Nutr Clin Care. 2001;4(4):199-208.
McElroy BH, Miller SP. Effectiveness of zinc gluconate glycine lozenges against the common cold in school-aged subjects: a retrospective chart review. Am J Ther. 2002;9(6):472-5.
Melchart D, Linde K, Fischer P, Kaesmayr J. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. [Review]. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2000;(2):CD000530.
Peltola V, Waris M, Osterback R, Susi P, Hyppia T, Ruuskanen O. Clinical effects of rhinovirus infections. J Clin Virol. 2008;43(4):411-44.
Pittler MH, Ernst E. Clinical effectiveness of garlic (Allium sativum). Mol Nutr Food Res. 2007 Nov;51(11):1382-5.
Prasad AS, Fitzgerald JT, Bao B, Beck FW, Chandrasekar PH. Duration of symptoms and plasma cytokine levels in patients with the common cold treated with zinc acetate. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Ann Intern Med. 2000;133(4):245-52.
Reid MR, Mackinnon LT, Drummond PD. The effects of stress management on symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection, secretory immunoglobulin A, and mood in young adults. J Psycosom Res. 2001;51(6):721-8.
Rerksuppaphol S, Rerksuppaphol L. Randomized controlled trial of probiotics to reduce common cold in schoolchildren. Pediatr Int. 2012; 54(5):682-7.
Roxas M, Jurenka J. Colds and influenza: a review of diagnosis and conventional, botanical, and nutritional considerations. Altern Med Rev. 2007 Mar;12(1):25-48. Review.
Sana A, Eccles R. The effects of a hot drink on nasal airflow and symptoms of the common cold and flu. Rhinology. 2008;46(4):271-5.
Shah SA, Sander S, White CM, Rinaldi M, Coleman CI. Evaluation of echinacea for the prevention and treatment of the common cold: a meta-analysis. Lancet Infect Dis. 2007 Jul;7(7):473-80. Review. Erratum in: Lancet Infect Dis. 2007 Sep;7(9):580.
Simasek M, Blandino DA. Treatment of the common cold. Am Fam Physician. 2007 Feb 15;75(4):515-20. Review.
Slapak I, Skoupa J, Strnad P, Hornik P. Efficacy of isotonic nasal wash (seawater) in the treatment and prevention of rhinitis in children. Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2008;134:67-74.
Takkouche B, Regueira-Mendez C, Garcia-Closas R, Figueiras A, Gestal-Otero JJ. Intake of vitamin C and zinc and risk of common cold: a cohort study. Epidemiology. 2002;13(1):38-44.
Turner RB. Ineffectiveness of intranasal zinc gluconate for prevention of experimental rhinovirus colds. Clin Infect Dis. 2001;33(11):1865-70.
Turner RB, Riker DK, Gangemi JD. Ineffectiveness of Echinacea for prevention of experimental rhinovirus colds. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 2000;44:1708-9.
Van Straten M, Josling P. Preventing the common cold with a vitamin C supplement: a double-blind, placebo-controlled survey. Adv Ther. 2002;19(3):151-9.
Woelkart K, Linde K, Bauer R. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Planta Med. 2008;74(6):633-7.
Review Date: 9/29/2015
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., a business unit of Ebix, Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.