There’s a good reason this ailment is often called the common cold: North Americans catch more a stunning 1 billion colds each year. With the right remedies, however, you can get faster relief and maybe even shorten your cold’s stay.


Source: Adapted from Know Your Options: The Definitive Guide to Choosing The Best Medical Treatments, Reader

What is a cold?

You don’t catch a cold from being out in the cold. You don‘t catch a cold by going outside with wet hair. And despite what many people think, bacteria do not cause colds, viruses do—some 200 different strains of them. Rhinoviruses, which produce an estimated 30% to 40% of colds, are most active in spring, summer, and early fall. Coronaviruses are responsible for most colds in winter and early spring. Any virus you’re exposed to spreads the same way—by direct contact. If someone sneezes or coughs in your direction, you can breathe in the virus. It can also survive outside the body for up to three hours—on telephones, cups, kitchen counters, hands, and other surfaces you’re likely to touch. If you pick up the virus and rub your eyes or nose before you wash your hands, you’ve given the bug a free ride to your mucous membranes. It’ll start replicating with a vengeance.

In an effort to evict the unwanted guest, your immune system unleashes a counterattack that you recognize as the classic cold symptoms: runny nose, sneezing, and coughing. Most colds clear up within a week. Particularly stubborn cold strains can hang around for twice as long, and the severity of symptoms varies greatly from person to person.

Who is at risk for colds?

Unlike most illnesses, though, colds become less likely to bother you as you age. The average child gets six to eight colds a year. The average adult has two to four. By the time you’re over age 60, you’re likely to get less than one cold a year.

Treatment for colds

The common cold is like the summertime blues: There ain’t no cure—mostly because there aren’t drugs (yet) that kill a wide range of viruses. For now, the best you can do is to make yourself more comfortable and try to help your immune system send your cold packing a day or so early. Getting rest and plenty of fluids is still a sound strategy. A number of simple steps—from keeping a positive attitude and taking the right over-the-counter medication to choosing immune-boosting foods and vitamins—will help you feel better faster. If your cold seems to worsen after a week or so, or if symptoms develop in your lungs or sinuses, consider a visit to your doctor.

If you have asthma, emphysema, or chronic bronchitis, see a doctor sooner: Cold symptoms can worsen the underlying condition.

Medications for colds

Choose products that target only the cold symptoms you have. There’s no sense in taking a multisymptom medication unless you have everything it treats. It’s a waste of money and it exposes you needlessly to potential side effects. For headaches, muscle aches, and fever, you can take aspirin or acetaminophen. One caution: Don’t give aspirin products—the label may say salicylate or salicylic acid—to children who are under age 16. They could develop Reye’s syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disorder.

If you have a stuffy nose, decongestants come in two forms: nasal and oral. Nasal decongestants (drops, sprays, and inhalers) work fast, but they must be used frequently, and overuse can make your nose even stuffier. This rebound effect is exactly what you don’t want. Oral decongestants have more side effects than drops and sprays: insomnia, a sense of anxiety, and a rapid heart rate. Antihistamines don’t help: They dry up runny noses only in people with allergies, not those with colds.

If you have a dry, nagging cough with your cold, try a cough suppressant with DM (for dextromethorphan) on the label. A suppressant is especially good at bedtime to help you sleep without coughing. Though it may be unpleasant, your cough helps clear mucus from your throat. Use an expectorant if your cold develops into a more serious bronchial infection, usually characterized by a yellowish or greenish mucus, as opposed to the clear mucus that comes with a cold. Saline nose drops or nasal wash also can offer relief from congestion.

Alternative Therapies for Colds

Relief may be as close as your kitchen. You can speed your recovery with the following foods:

  • Broccoli: A potent source of vitamin C, it can help send your cold packing. To soothe irritating coughs, sauté broccoli with fresh ginger.
  • Sweet potato: It’s high in beta-carotene, a powerful antioxidant that your body converts into virus-fighting vitamin A.
  • Chili peppers: They get their heat from capsaicin, which breaks up mucus to make breathing easier. Use them in a fiery salsa.
  • Garlic: It contains allicin, which can relieve congestion by regulating mucus flow. Cook it with onions to help shrink swollen airways.
  • Grapefruit: Pink in particular is loaded with flavonoids to fight infections and increase immunity. Drizzle with honey if you have a sore throat.
  • Horseradish: The allyl isothiocyanate in it makes your eyes water and helps thin mucus.
  • Oysters: A great source of zinc, these immunity boosters may lessen a cold’s severity and duration.
  • Tea: They contain tannin flavonoids, which ease breathing by expanding bronchial passages. Brew your tea strong, inhale steam while it‘s hot, then drink a cup or two after it cools down.
  • Chicken soup: Homemade or store-bought, chicken soup lessens inflammation and relieves cold symptoms.

Vitamin C, a potent immunity-booster, may help cut your cold short and relieve symptoms. At the first sign of a cold, take 1,000 mg of vitamin C daily. Be aware that high doses can cause diarrhea in some people. When introduced in the mid-1990s, zinc gluconate lozenges were touted as being able to cut a cold’s duration in half, but results of more recent studies have been mixed. Nasal zinc gluconate gel (Zicam) may be a better choice because the zinc stays in the nasal passages long enough to affect the virus. Some studies show that echinacea helps shorten a cold’s duration and eases symptoms in some people. For best results, take the herb at the first sign of cold symptoms.

Living with a Cold

You can ease the misery of a cold with:

  • Rest. Getting needed rest is probably the single most important thing you can do to help your body fight the infection.
  • Drink fluids. Water is best, and steaming liquids or herbal tea can help clear your nose and soothe your throat. Science now supports what your grandma always told you: Chicken soup will fight your cold. Avoid alcohol and coffee while you’re sick: They dehydrate you.
  • Use a humidifier. Inhaling moist air will open your airways and help you breathe more easily.
  • Gargle with warm salt water. This takes the “ouch” out of sore throats caused by colds. Do it several times a day.
  • Try nasal strips. A nasal strip will open your nostrils, and may make breathing less of a chore despite your congestion.
  • Keep it clean. If anyone in your family has a cold, use a virus-killing disinfectant to wipe kitchen counters and other surfaces you’re apt to touch. You can make your own disinfectant by mixing one part bleach with 10 parts water.

Prevention of colds

When it comes to preventing future colds, your daily habits are very important. Here’s how to keep viruses away in the first place:

  • Wash your hands. Odds of catching a cold are in your own hands. “Operation Stop Cough,” a campaign to get recruits to wash their hands at least five times a day, cut the rate of colds and other respiratory illnesses at a naval facility almost in half. Wash your hands often, especially before every meal.
  • Eat breakfast. A study of 498 healthy individuals in Cardiff, Wales, found that those who started their day with breakfast got fewer and less severe colds than those who skipped their morning meal. Many cereals are fortified with vitamins and other nutrients, and protein, which helps create antibodies that fight infections. That’s two more reasons why breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
  • Think positive. That same study found that those who approached life in a negative mood were more likely to get a cold or other illness. This supports what doctors have long known: Stress weakens your immune system.
  • Make friends. At first glance, this notion may seem contradictory. You might think that the more people you hang out with, the more you’ll be exposed to the viruses that cause colds. However, research has shown that having a large circle of family and friends may offer protection against colds. The reason: The more you’re around those who care about you and support you, the better you’re able to handle stress. That boosts your immune system, making it tougher for cold viruses to gain a foothold.