Treating a common cold
You should be able to treat cold symptoms yourself by trying over-the-counter cold medications and following some simple advice.
Over-the-counter cold medications
In the UK, over-the-counter cold medicines are probably the most widely used type of medication.
- Painkillers such as ibuprofen, paracetamol and aspirin – which are the only type of medication known to be effective in treating colds. Children under 16 years old or breastfeeding women should not take aspirin.
- Decongestants (medications designed to reduce nasal congestion) – may have limited effectiveness against colds. However, don't use them for more than seven days because overuse can make the symptoms of congestion worse. Children under six years old should not use decongestants.
Most over-the-counter cold medications aren't suitable for children under six years old. If your child is unwell, talk to your pharmacist about the best option.
Many of these medications contain a combination of different medicines; typically a painkiller, such as paracetamol, and a decongestant, such as pseudoephedrine.
If you have recently taken a cold medication, it may not be safe for you to take an additional painkiller. Read the manufacturer’s patient information leaflet carefully before taking the medication, and follow the recommended dosage instructions.
More information about specific over-the-counter cold medicines is provided below.
Decongestants can be taken by mouth (oral decongestants) or as a spray in your nose (nasal decongestants). They work by reducing the swelling in the passageways of your nose and may also help ease breathing.
There's limited evidence to show how effective decongestants are. They may only help some people and often only ease symptoms for a short period of time.
Decongestants are safe and rarely cause serious side effects. Although, if you use them frequently or for a long time, your congestion may end up getting worse.
Decongestants are not recommended for children under six years old and children under 12 years old shouldn't take them unless advised by a GP. Read more about who can use decongestant medication.
Oral decongestants can make you feel more alert and may cause problems sleeping at night.
Oral decongestants may interact with some antidepressants and beta-blockers so if you're taking these medicines, check with your GP or pharmacist before taking oral decongestants. Also check if you have high blood pressure, heart problems or glaucoma.
Nasal decongestants work specifically on the nose. They're usually safe for adults and older children to use. They are available as nose drops or sprays.
Nasal decongestants shouldn't be used for more than seven days because using them for longer can actually make your congestion worse. If you're taking a type of antidepressant called a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), you shouldn't use nasal decongestants.
Paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin can help reduce a fever and also act as painkillers. Aspirin should not be given to children under the age of 16 and look for age-appropriate versions of paracetamol and ibruprofen (usually in liquid form). Always follow manufacturer's instructions to ensure the correct dose is given.
Children must not be given both ibuprofen and paracetamol unless directed by a qualified medical professional – use one or the other. Using both could cause adverse side effects. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully.
Read more information about giving your child paracetamol or ibuprofen.
Paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin are also included in some cold medicines with other ingredients. Check with your pharmacist or GP before taking a cold remedy if you're taking any other painkillers.
If you're pregnant, paracetamol – not ibuprofen – is the preferred choice to treat mild to moderate pain and fever.
Read more information about:
Taking zinc syrup, tablets or lozenges may be an effective treatment for the common cold.
A 2011 Cochrane review suggests that taking zinc supplements within a day of the symptoms starting will speed up recovery and lessen the severity of symptoms.
However, long-term use of zinc isn't recommended as it could cause side effects such as vomiting and diarrhoea.
More research is required to determine the recommended dose.
The below advice should also help:
- Drink plenty of fluids to replace those lost due to sweating and a runny nose.
- Get plenty of rest – there's no official guidance as to how long a person should stay off work or school. Most people know when they're fit enough to return to normal activities.
- Eat healthily: a low-fat, high-fibre diet is recommended, including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables (five portions a day).
Many children lose their appetite when they have a cold. This is perfectly normal and should only last a few days. It's recommended children with a cold only eat when they're hungry.
The remedies outlined below may also help relieve your symptoms.
Steam inhalation involves sitting with your head over a bowl of hot water. Place a towel over your head, close your eyes and breathe deeply. Avoid getting the hot steam in your eyes.
The steam may help ease your congestion by loosening mucus and making it easier to clear by blowing your nose. Adding menthol, eucalyptus, camphor, thymol or pine oil to the water may help clear the passageways in your nose.
Steam inhalation is not advised for children because of the risk of scalding. Instead, it might help a child if they sit in a hot, steamy bathroom.
Gargling with salt water can sometimes help relieve the symptoms of a sore throat and nasal congestion.
Vapour rubs can help soothe the symptoms of a cold in babies and young children. Apply the rub to your child’s chest and back. Don't apply it to their nostrils because this could cause pain and breathing difficulties.
Some people find sucking a menthol sweet can help relieve a sore throat.
Nasal saline drops
Nasal saline drops or sprays can help relieve the symptoms of nasal congestion in babies and young children. Nasal saline drops contain salt water so they're thought to work in the same way as gargling salt, but they're often better tolerated in babies and young children.
Nasal saline drops or sprays are available from most pharmacists.
Medications to avoid
There's no evidence to suggest that the following medications are useful in treating a cold:
- antihistamines or cough syrups
- antibiotics – as almost all colds are caused by a viral infection. Antibiotics won't have any benefit, may cause unpleasant side effects and increase the risk of antibiotic resistance (when an antibiotic is no longer effective)
Page last reviewed: 19/06/2013
Next review due: 19/06/2015