Diagnosis

In general, you don't need to see the doctor for a common cold. But if symptoms worsen or don't go away, it might be time to see your doctor.

Most people with a common cold can be diagnosed by their signs and symptoms. If your doctor suspects that you have a bacterial infection or other condition, he or she may order a chest X-ray or other tests to rule out other causes of your symptoms.

Treatment

There's no cure for the common cold. Most cases of the common cold get better without treatment, usually within a week to 10 days. But a cough may linger for a few more days. The best thing you can do is take care of yourself while your body heals. For example, drink plenty of liquids, humidify the air, use saline nasal rinses and get adequate rest.

Antibiotics are of no use against cold viruses and shouldn't be used unless there's a bacterial infection.

Relieving your symptoms can include using over-the-counter (OTC) medication to reduce fever, body aches, congestion and cough. Some remedies might help ease your symptoms and keep you from feeling so miserable. But there are pros and cons to commonly used cold remedies, such as over-the-counter pain relievers, decongestants, nasal sprays and cough syrups. Don't give OTC cold medications to children.

Pain relievers

For a fever, sore throat and headache, adults often turn to OTC acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or other mild pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others).

For treatment of fever or pain in children, consider giving your child infants' or children's over-the-counter fever and pain medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others). These are safer alternatives to aspirin.

For children younger than 3 months old, don't give acetaminophen until your baby has been seen by a doctor. Don't give ibuprofen to a child younger than 6 months old or to children who are vomiting constantly or are dehydrated.

Use these medications for the shortest time possible and follow label directions to avoid side effects. Call your doctor if you have questions about the right dose.

Aspirin is not recommended for 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.

Decongestant nasal sprays

Adults can use decongestant drops or sprays for up to five days. Prolonged use can cause rebound symptoms. Children younger than 6 years old shouldn't use decongestant drops or sprays. Talk to your doctor before using nasal decongestants in children older than 6 years.

Cough syrups

Over-the-counter cough and cold medicines are intended to treat the symptoms of coughs and colds, not the underlying disease. Research suggests that these medicines haven't been proved to work any better to treat colds than do inactive medicine (placebo).

If you use over-the counter cough and cold medicines, follow the label directions. Don't take two medicines with the same active ingredient, such as an antihistamine, decongestant or pain reliever. Too much of a single ingredient could lead to an accidental overdose.

Don't use over-the-counter medicines, except for fever reducers and pain relievers, to treat coughs and colds in children younger than 6 years old. Cough and cold medications have potentially serious side effects, including fatal overdoses in children younger than 2 years old. Also consider avoiding use of these medicines for children younger than 12 years old. And it isn't typically recommended that you give cough or cold medicines to an older child.

Lifestyle and home remedies

To make yourself as comfortable as possible when you have a cold, try some of these suggestions:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Water, juice, clear broth or warm lemon water are good choices. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can dehydrate you.
  • Sip warm liquids. Chicken soup and other warm fluids, such as tea or warm apple juice, can be soothing and can loosen congestion. Honey may help coughs in adults and children who are older than age 1. Try it in hot tea.
  • Rest. If possible, stay home from work or school if you have a fever or a bad cough or are drowsy after taking medications. This will give you a chance to rest and heal, as well as reduce the chances that you'll spread your cold to others.
  • Adjust your room's temperature and humidity. Keep your room warm, but not overheated. If the air is dry, a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer can moisten the air and help ease congestion and coughing. Clean your humidifier according to the manufacturer's directions to prevent the growth of bacteria and molds.
  • Soothe a sore throat. A saltwater gargle of 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon (1250-2500 milligrams) of table salt in 4 to 8 ounces (120 to 240 milliliters) of warm water can help soothe a sore throat. Gargle the solution and then spit it out. Children younger than 6 years are unlikely to be able to gargle properly.
  • You can also try ice chips, lozenges or hard candy. Use caution when giving lozenges or hard candy to children because they can choke on them. Don't give lozenges or hard candy to children younger than 6 years.

  • Try saline nasal drops or sprays. Saline nasal drops or sprays can keep nasal passages moist and loosen mucus. You can buy these products over-the-counter, and they can help relieve symptoms, even in children.

    In infants and younger children, apply saline nasal drops, wait for a short period and then use a suction bulb to draw mucus out of each nostril. Insert the bulb syringe about 1/4 to 1/2 inch (6 to 12 millimeters). For older children, use a saline nasal spray or saline nasal irrigation.

Alternative medicine

In spite of ongoing studies, the scientific jury is still out on common alternative cold remedies such as vitamin C, echinacea and zinc. Because alternative cold remedies have not been studied in children, they are generally not recommended for use in children. Here's an update on some popular choices:

Vitamin C

It appears that for the most part taking vitamin C won't help the average person prevent colds. However, some studies have found that taking vitamin C before cold symptoms start may shorten the length of time you have symptoms.

Echinacea

Study results on whether echinacea prevents or shortens colds are mixed. Some studies show no benefit. Others show some reduction in the severity and duration of cold symptoms when taken in the early stages of a cold. Different types of echinacea used in different studies may have contributed to the mixed results.

Echinacea seems to be most effective if you take it when you notice cold symptoms and continue it for seven to 10 days. It appears to be safe for healthy adults, but it can interact with many drugs. Check with your doctor before taking echinacea or any other supplement.

Zinc

Several studies have suggested that zinc supplements may reduce the length of a cold. But research has turned up mixed results about zinc and colds.

Some studies show that zinc lozenges or syrup reduce the length of a cold by about one day, especially when taken within 24 to 48 hours of the first signs and symptoms of a cold. Zinc also has potentially harmful side effects.

Intranasal zinc might cause permanent damage to the sense of smell. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning against using zinc-containing nasal cold remedies because they are associated with a long-lasting or permanent loss of smell.

Talk to your doctor before considering the use of zinc to prevent or reduce the length of colds.

Preparing for your appointment

If you or your child has a cold and symptoms persist or worsen or are severe, make an appointment with your primary care provider or your child's pediatrician. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

Make a list of:

  • Your or your child's symptoms and when they began
  • Key personal information, including major stresses, other health conditions and exposure to people who've been ill
  • Medications, vitamins or supplements you or your child takes
  • Questions to ask your doctor

For a common cold, questions to ask your doctor may include:

  • What's likely causing these symptoms?
  • Are there other possible causes?
  • Are tests needed?
  • What treatment approach do you recommend?
  • What treatments should be avoided?
  • How soon do you expect symptoms to improve?
  • Am I or my child contagious? When is it safe to return to school or work?
  • What self-care steps might help?
  • I or my child has other health conditions. How can we manage them together?

Don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you questions, such as:

  • How long have you had symptoms?
  • Have symptoms been continuous?
  • How severe are the symptoms?
  • Did symptoms improve and then worsen?
  • What, if anything, seems to improve the symptoms?
  • What, if anything, worsens symptoms?

Your doctor will ask additional questions based on your responses, symptoms and needs. Preparing and anticipating questions will help you make the most of your time with the doctor.