17 home remedies for cold symptoms
Several respiratory viruses, including rhinoviruses, respiratory
syncytial virus, adenovirus, human metapneumovirus, and human parainfluenza
virus, cause the common cold, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In most people, a cold will run its
course in about a week to 10 days. If you’re immunocompromised, or you have
allergies or asthma, a cold can develop into pneumonia or
bronchitis. Getting plenty of rest and staying well-hydrated are the best ways to recover – there is no
cure for the common cold. But if you’re dealing with a cold virus, consider
trying one or more of the following home remedies to make your symptoms more
1. Drink plenty of fluids
“Staying well-hydrated helps thin out mucus and makes it easier to
clear nasal congestion or cough up sputum,” says Julia Blank, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s
Health Center in Santa Monica. She recommends water, juice, tea, or broth, but
make sure you avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can dehydrate you.
2. Use a cool-mist humidifier
Another useful remedy is to moisturize the air with a cool-mist
humidifier, which can clear nasal passages and help loosen congestion, says Dr.
Blank. Whenever possible, use distilled water instead of tap water, set the unit to 30% to 50% humidity, and always follow the directions that come with
3. Eat chicken noodle soup
Chicken noodle soup might be good for the soul, but it’s also an
excellent home remedy for a simple cold. “Chicken soup helps with hydration,
the warm fluid can help soothe a sore throat, and cysteine—an amino acid in
chicken soup—may help thin mucus and ease congestion,” explains Dr. Blank.
4. Ramp up your rest
Getting plenty of rest when you’re sick is important for your
immune system to be able to fight off cold viruses. Adults should aim for seven
to nine hours of sleep each night as well as naps during the day. Kids need
nine to 12 hours and teens should get eight to 10 hours each night.
5. Soothe a sore throat with
To help temporarily soothe a sore throat, Dr. Blank recommends
throat lozenges. “Menthol lozenges can temporarily clear nasal passages and
soothe a sore throat.”
6. Gargle with salt water
If you’re dealing with a sore and scratchy throat, consider
gargling with salt water. Dr. Blank says this old-school home remedy can help
to temporarily relieve throat discomfort. Mix a teaspoon of salt in a glass of
warm water. Take a drink, but do not swallow, and gargle in the back of your
throat for 10 to 30 seconds. Spit it out when done.
7. Drink warm fluids
“You want to thin the mucus in the throat and nose, and warm
fluids help do that,” says Payel Gupta, MD, a triple board-certified doctor in pediatrics,
allergy and immunology, and internal medicine. Plus, warm drinks are soothing. Warm lemon
water, clear broth, and warm tea are all good choices.
8. Have some honey
Coughing at night interrupts sleep and makes it difficult to get
any rest. If you’ve already taken an OTC cough or cold medicine but still need
some relief, try a spoonful of honey. Not only does honey help soothe a sore throat,
but Dr. Blank says it also temporarily eases a cough.
9. Breathe in some steam
Dr. Gupta recommends steam when battling a cold. Use a vaporizer
or make a tent out of a towel as you sit over a bowl of hot water and breathe
in the steam, which is soothing and helps loosen mucus and phlegm. “Just make
sure you’re not sitting too close to the bowl, and the steam isn’t burning
delicate mucus membranes,” Dr. Gupta advises.
10. Use a neti pot
Neti pots are generally considered safe to use for sinus issues
such as the common cold. Also called a nasal irrigation device, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends using distilled or sterile
water, boiled and cooled tap water, or water passed through a filter. They also
say to add a saline solution to the water, which helps minimize irritation as
the water passes through the nasal passages. Dr. Gupta recommends using a
neti-pot to irrigate the sinuses about once a day. “This will lessen post-nasal
drip, which causes coughs and irritates the throat,” she says. Just make sure
you disinfect the neti pot every time you use it.
11. Take an elderberry
Elderberry supplements, gummies, teas, lozenges, extracts and
syrups may help
to reduce the severity and duration of cold symptoms. However, Dr. Blank points
out that the mechanism of action is not clear. It may play a role in the body’s
immune reaction to cold and flu viruses. According to a 2016 randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled
trial, air travelers
using elderberry 10 days before travel until four to five days after arriving
at their destination experienced a two-day shorter duration of the cold and
also noticed a reduction in cold symptoms.
12. Consume zinc
Results from a 2012 systematic review and meta-analysis of
randomized controlled trials found
that zinc formulations such as lozenges, tablets, or syrup may
reduce the duration of a cold by about one day, especially when taken within
24-48 hours of the onset of symptoms. But a 2020 trial examining the effect of zinc lozenges on
cold duration found they had no benefit. Still, zinc is safe to try, just watch
out for side effects like nausea.
13. Drink beetroot juice
Beetroot is a nutritional powerhouse with antioxidant, antitumor, and
liver-protecting properties. What’s more, the root lowers blood pressure, helps
stabilize blood sugar levels, and enhances physical and cognitive performance.
But does drinking beetroot juice help if you have a cold? According to one study, ingesting the juice during times of psychological
stress is protective against cold symptoms, particularly among those with
asthma. To reap the immune-enhancing benefits of beetroot juice, try drinking a cup a day.
14. Try probiotic drinks
It’s no secret that probiotics can enhance gut health and improve digestion. But did you know that drinking probiotic
beverages can help reduce cold symptoms too? A recent study found
that a yogurt drink containing the probiotic strains Lactobacillus
paracasei, Lactobacillus casei 431, and Lactobacillus fermentium PCC offered
protection against cold and flu-like respiratory viruses. And another recent study found
that the probiotic drink kefir offered strong protection against many viruses,
15. Supplement with vitamin D
According to research, people
with low blood levels of vitamin D are at increased risk of catching colds. On
the flip side, supplementing with the vitamin decreases your risk of coming
down with the common cold and upper respiratory tract infections. To help your
immune system ward off these viral offenders, experts recommend aiming for 1000-2000 IUs per day. Just make sure you start
supplementing before the onset of symptoms—taking extra D once you’re sick might shorten the
duration of your cold, but more research is needed.
16. Use a cold compress
If your cold is accompanied by a sinus headache, placing a cold
compress over the painful area may help to ease your symptoms by reducing inflammation. To make a compress at home, moisten a cloth or
towel and freeze it for 15 minutes before placing it on the area of discomfort.
If you have a fever, placing a
cool, damp cloth on your forehead can help bring it down, too.
17. Sleep with an extra pillow
Colds usually come with lots of congestion, which often gets worse
at night. That’s because when you’re lying down, mucus doesn’t drain as easily.
To keep mucus from accumulating in your head and throat, try elevating your
head with an extra pillow—it may be enough to keep that extra congestion at
Cold remedies that don’t work
There are many time-tested and proven remedies for treating cold symptoms. However, there are also several that lack evidence or expert support to warrant using them when dealing with a cold.
“Antibiotics are for fighting bacteria, not viruses that cause colds,” says Dr. Blank. In fact, she points out that antibiotics won’t help you get well faster and can cause side effects. Inappropriate use of antibiotics leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
RELATED: Common superstitions about your health
Echinacea is touted as a natural cold remedy, but research backing this claim is lacking. Although taking echinacea won’t shorten the length of your cold, it may be helpful when taken prophylactically—that is, as a preventive measure to fend off cold viruses. If you do decide to take echinacea capsules or extract, follow the instructions on the label, and don’t take it for more than 2two weeks unless advised by your healthcare provider.
While taking a hot shower and breathing in all that steam can help open up clogged nasal passages, research on whether heated, humidified air is beneficial for colds is inconclusive. That said, it can’t hurt (as long as the water isn’t scalding), so if taking a hot, steamy shower makes you feel better, give it a try the next time you’re sick.
Topical ointments containing menthol, camphor, and eucalyptus oil, such as Vicks VapoRub, are designed to alleviate coughs associated with cold viruses, making breathing easier. Although some people may use a dab of the ointment under their nose to help open nasal passages, doing this won’t work to reduce nasal congestion. What’s more, using Vicks VapoRub under the nose isn’t recommended by the manufacturer—it should only be applied to the neck and chest. And although there are salves specifically formulated for use under the nose, research on their efficacy is lacking. Before giving one of these products a try, consult with your doctor for advice.
How to treat a cold when natural remedies don’t work
When natural remedies fail to curb cold symptoms, it might be time to try an OTC product or prescription medication for the common cold. While not an exhaustive list, here are four treatments to consider.
1. Ask your healthcare provider about Atrovent
Dr. Blank says Atrovent (ipratropium) nasal spray can help to reduce the severity and duration of cold symptoms. Parents of young children or pregnant women should talk to their healthcare provider about the safety of Atrovent.
2. Pain relievers to the rescue
OTC pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) are often recommended when dealing with cold symptoms like fever or pain. Both types of pain relievers are safe for children to take. Make sure to follow the instructions for age and weight and consult your healthcare provider if you have questions. If you’re pregnant, the FDA recommends avoiding nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, especially at 20 weeks and beyond.
3. OTC cough and cold medicine
There are several over-the-counter cough and cold medicines for adults and children 12 and over. Dr. Blank says if your child is under 12, you should consult with your pediatrician on what to take. Additionally, if you have underlying medical conditions like high blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, heart disease, or anxiety, or you’re on any prescription medication, she says to talk to your healthcare provider before taking any OTC medication. With that in mind, Blank says the following OTC cough and cold medicines can help relieve symptoms:
- Decongestants that contain pseudoephedrine can help with nasal congestion.
- Mucus-thinning medications that contain guaifenesin (a cough expectorant) can temporarily ease nasal and chest congestion and make it easier to clear secretions.
- Antihistamines like Claritin or Zyrtec can help runny nose and sneezing by drying nasal passages and secretions.
- Theraflu Severe Cold and Cough is a medication that contains the ingredients acetaminophen (fever reducer/pain reliever), dextromethorphan (cough suppressant), and phenylephrine (nasal decongestant) to tackle multiple cold symptoms at once. It’s also available in nighttime and
Some OTC cough and cold medicines are safe to take while pregnant. These include the decongestant Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) after the first trimester, the cough suppressant Robitussin (dextromethorphan), and the antihistamine Benadryl (diphenhydramine). Always consult with your healthcare provider before taking any OTC medication while pregnant.
RELATED: What to do if you get the flu while pregnant
4. Treat your nose to a nasal spray
“Nasal saline spray can help loosen secretions and temporarily relieve nasal congestion,” says Dr. Blank. Follow the directions that come with the product. Using a spray the right way increases its effectiveness.
While the duration of your symptoms may vary, many people wonder how to cure a cold in 24 hours or even overnight. The best way to tame a cold fast is to stay home, rest, drink plenty of fluids, gargle with salt water, take an OTC medication, and humidify the air.
RELATED: More common cold treatments and medications
When to see a healthcare provider for cold symptoms
Most mild to moderate cold symptoms are treatable with home remedies. However, there are times when seeing a healthcare provider is warranted. “Some people are at increased risk of developing complications such as secondary bacterial infections after getting a cold,” says Dr. Blank. This includes smokers, people with asthma or COPD, and anyone with a compromised immune system. If you fall into a high-risk category, she recommends seeing your healthcare provider if symptoms are more severe or last longer than you’d expect from a cold.
She also says to see a healthcare provider if you develop symptoms that suggest something more serious than a cold, like COVID-19, such as:
- High fever
- Shortness of breath
- Severe headache
- Symptoms lasting longer than 10 days—especially if they are not getting better
Additionally, moderate to severe cold symptoms in young children are best treated by a medical provider specializing in pediatrics.
It’s also important to know how to identify flu symptoms—especially during flu season—so that you can get timely medical treatment. While most respiratory infections like a cold typically subside within seven to 10 days, infectious diseases like the flu can cause serious health problems.
Some of the more common signs of the flu to be aware of include fever, chills, headache, sore throat, body aches, dry cough, and fatigue. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, see your healthcare provider immediately so they can treat and recommend various flu remedies.