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 do they work? Nothing can cure a cold, which is caused by germs called viruses. But some remedies might help ease your symptoms and keep you from feeling so bad. Here's a look at some common cold remedies and what's known about them.

Cold remedies that work

If you catch a cold, expect to be sick for 1 to 2 weeks. That doesn't mean you have to feel awful. The following might help you feel better:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. Water, juice, clear broth or warm lemon water with honey helps loosen stuffiness, called congestion. These also help prevent losing too much fluid, called dehydration. Don't drink alcohol, coffee and sodas with caffeine. They can make dehydration worse.
  • Rest. Your body needs rest to heal.
  • Sip warm liquids. Many cultures use warm liquids, such as chicken soup, tea or warm apple juice, for colds. Warm liquids might ease stuffiness by increasing mucus flow.
  • Try honey. Honey may help coughs in adults and children who are older than age 1. Try it in warm tea or lemon water.
  • Add cool moisture to the air. A cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier can add moisture to your home. Moisture might help ease stuffiness. Change the water daily. Clean the unit as the maker instructs.

Soothe a sore throat

If you have a sore throat , using a saltwater gargle can relieve it for a while. Put 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt in an 8-ounce glass of warm water.

Children younger than 6 years most likely can't gargle.

You also can try ice chips, sore throat sprays, lozenges or hard candy. Take care 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.

Ease stuffiness

Saline nasal drops and sprays you can get without a prescription can help relieve stuffiness.

For infants, experts suggest putting a few saline drops into one nostril. Then use a bulb syringe to gently suck out that nostril. 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.

You can use saline nasal sprays in older children.

Relieve pain

Adults can take acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or aspirin. Do not give children or teenagers aspirin.

Aspirin has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare life-threatening condition, in children or teenagers who have the flu or chickenpox.

For treatment of fever or pain, consider giving your child infants' or children's versions of medicines available without a prescription. Examples are acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others). These can be used as a safer alternative to aspirin.

Try cold and cough medicines

For adults and children age 5 and older, decongestants, antihistamines and pain relievers available without a prescription might ease some symptoms. But they won't prevent a cold or shorten how long it lasts. And most have some side effects.

Experts agree that these shouldn't be given to younger children. Using too much of these medicines or not using them the right way can cause serious damage. Talk with your child's healthcare professional before giving any medicines.

Take medicines only as the label says. Some cold remedies have mixed ingredients, such as a decongestant plus a pain reliever. If you also take a pain reliever, taking a decongestant with a pain reliever could cause problems. Read the labels of cold medicines to make sure you're not taking too much of any medicine.

Cold remedies that don't work

The list of cold remedies that don't give relief is long. Some of the more common ones include:

Medicines called antibiotics

These attack germs called bacteria. But they're no help against cold viruses. Don't ask your healthcare professional for antibiotics for a cold or use old antibiotics you have. You won't get well faster. And using antibiotics when you don't need them adds to the serious and growing problem of germs that can resist antibiotics.

Cold and cough medicines in young children

Cold and cough medicine you can get without a prescription can harm children. Do not give any cough and cold medicines to children under age 4 years.

Talk with your child's healthcare professional before giving any medicines to children ages 4 to 6 years. Know that these medicines may not help much and may have side effects.

Cold remedies with mixed study results

In spite of ongoing studies, the scientists still don't know whether some cold remedies, such as vitamin C and zinc, work. Here's what studies show:

Vitamin C

Taking vitamin C has not been shown to help prevent colds.

But some studies have found that taking vitamin C before cold symptoms start may shorten how long symptoms last. Vitamin C may help people at high risk of colds because they're often in contact with the viruses that cause colds. For instance, children who go to group child care during the winter are at high risk.


Some studies show that zinc lozenges or syrup may prevent a cold or shorten symptoms. Other studies show zinc doesn't help.

Zinc can have harmful side effects.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises against using products with zinc you put in your nose. They can cause you to lose your sense of smell. Talk with your healthcare professional before using zinc.

Take care of yourself

Although colds go away on their own, they can make you feel awful. You might want to try the latest remedy. But the best relief comes from taking care of yourself. Rest, drink fluids and keep the air around you moist. Remember to wash your hands often so you don't give your cold to others.

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July 12, 2024 See more In-depth