Cold remedies: What works, what doesn't, what can't hurt

There's no cure for the common cold. But what about cold remedies that claim to make you feel better faster? Find out what's effective — and what's not.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Cold remedies are almost as common as the common cold, but are they effective? Nothing can cure a cold, but there are some remedies that might help ease your symptoms and keep you from feeling so miserable. Here's a look at some common cold remedies and what's known about them.

Cold remedies: What works

If you catch a cold, you can expect to be sick for one to two weeks. That doesn't mean you have to be miserable. Besides getting enough rest, these remedies might help you feel better:

  • Stay hydrated. Water, juice, clear broth or warm lemon water with honey helps loosen congestion and prevents dehydration. Avoid alcohol, coffee and caffeinated sodas, which can make dehydration worse.
  • Rest. Your body needs to heal.
  • Soothe a sore throat. A saltwater gargle — 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt dissolved in an 8-ounce glass of warm water — can temporarily relieve a sore or scratchy throat. Children younger than 6 years are unlikely to be able to gargle properly.

    You can also try ice chips, sore throat sprays, lozenges or hard candy. Don't give lozenges or hard candy to children younger than 3 to 4 years old because they can choke on them.

  • Combat stuffiness. Over-the-counter saline nasal drops and sprays can help relieve stuffiness and congestion. In infants, experts recommend putting several saline drops into one nostril, then gently suctioning that nostril with a bulb syringe. To do this, squeeze the bulb, gently place the syringe tip in the nostril about 1/4 to 1/2 inch (about 6 to 12 millimeters) and slowly release the bulb. Saline nasal sprays may be used in older children.
  • Relieve pain. For children 6 months or younger, give only acetaminophen. For children older than 6 months, give either acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Ask your child's doctor for the correct dose for your child's age and weight. Adults can take acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or aspirin.

    Use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Though aspirin is approved for use in children older than age 3, children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin. This is because aspirin has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition, in such children.

  • Sip warm liquids. A cold remedy used in many cultures, taking in warm liquids, such as chicken soup, tea, or warm apple juice, might be soothing and might ease congestion by increasing mucus flow.
  • Add moisture to the air.  A cool mist vaporizer or humidifier can add moisture to your home, which might help loosen congestion. Change the water daily, and clean the unit according to the manufacturer's instructions. Don't use steam, which hasn't been shown to help and may cause burns.
  • Try over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough medications. For adults and children older than 5, OTC decongestants, antihistamines and pain relievers might offer some symptom relief. However, they won't prevent a cold or shorten its duration, and most have some side effects.

    Experts agree that these shouldn't be given to younger children. Overuse and misuse of these medications can cause serious damage.

    Take medications only as directed. Some cold remedies contain multiple ingredients, such as a decongestant plus a pain reliever, so read the labels of cold medications you take to make sure you're not taking too much of any medication.

Cold remedies: What doesn't work

The list of ineffective cold remedies is long. A few of the more common ones that don't work include:

  • Antibiotics. These attack bacteria, but they're no help against cold viruses. Avoid asking your doctor for antibiotics for a cold or using old antibiotics you have on hand. You won't get well any faster, and inappropriate use of antibiotics contributes to the serious and growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
  • Over-the-counter cold and cough medications in young children. OTC cold and cough medications may cause serious and even life-threatening side effects in children. The FDA warns against their use in children younger than age 6.
  • Zinc. The cold-fighting reputation of zinc has had its ups and downs. That's because many zinc studies are flawed.

  • The jury is still out, but a review of 18 randomized, controlled studies indicated that zinc lozenges or syrup reduced the average length of a cold in otherwise healthy people when taken within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms. The review also found some evidence that zinc taken for five months to prevent colds reduced the incidence of colds in children. Keep in mind, though, that you can't really know what's in the zinc product you take.

    The review didn't recommend zinc for people with chronic illnesses, such as asthma, because they weren't included in the studies. Side effects of zinc include a bad taste and nausea.

    Intranasal zinc may result in permanent damage to the sense of smell. The FDA issued a warning against using three zinc-containing nasal cold remedies because they had been associated with a long-lasting or permanent loss of smell (anosmia).

April 03, 2015 See more In-depth