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Additional Information From NIAID

Common Cold

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Treatment

There is no cure for the common cold, but you can get relief from your cold symptoms by

  • Resting in bed
  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Gargling with warm salt water or using ice chips, throat sprays, or lozenges for a scratchy or sore throat
  • Using a decongestant or saline nasal spray to help relieve nasal sympsoms 
  • Using petroleum jelly to soothe a raw nose
  • Taking aspirin or acetaminophen—Tylenol, for example—for headache or fever

Colds occasionally can lead to bacterial infections of your middle ear or sinuses, requiring treatment with antibiotics. However, you should not use antibiotics to treat a cold.

A word of caution: Several studies have linked aspirin use to the development of Reye’s syndrome in children recovering from flu or chickenpox. Reye’s syndrome is a rare but serious illness that usually occurs in children between the ages of 3 and 12 years. It can affect all organs of the body but most often the brain and liver. While most children who survive an episode of Reye’s syndrome do not suffer any lasting affects, the illness can lead to permanent brain damage or death. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children and teenagers not be given aspirin or medicine containing aspirin when they have any viral illness such as the common cold. Babies 6 months of age or younger should be given only acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, for pain relief.

Over-the-counter cold medicines

Nonprescription cold remedies, including decongestants and cough suppressants, may relieve some of your cold symptoms but will not prevent or even shorten the length of your cold. Moreover, because most of these medicines have some side effects, such as drowsiness, dizziness, insomnia, or upset stomach, you should take them with care.

Use in children

Health experts have questioned the safety of nonprescription cold medicines in children and whether the benefits justify any possible risks from giving these medicines to children, especially those under 2 years old. In 2008, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel recommended that nonprescription cold medicines not be given to children under 4 years old, because cold medicines don't appear to be effective for these children and may not be safe, especially for those under the age of 2.

Because many cold medicines contain multiple drugs, FDA also recommends being very careful in giving a child more than one cold medicine at a time, so as not to cause harm from too high a dose of cold medicines.

Over-the-counter antihistamines

Nonprescription antihistamines may give you some relief from symptoms such as runny nose and watery eyes, which are symptoms commonly associated with colds.

Antibiotics

Never take antibiotics to treat a cold, because colds are caused by viruses and antibiotics do not kill viruses. You should use these prescription medicines only if you have a rare bacterial complication, such as sinusitis or ear infection. In addition, you should not use antibiotics “just in case” because they will not prevent bacterial infections.

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Last Updated February 11, 2011