How to treat a cold 

You can manage cold symptoms yourself by following some simple advice. You'll normally start to feel better within 7 to 10 days.

General advice

Until you're feeling better, it may help to:

  • drink plenty of fluids to replace those lost from sweating and having a runny nose 
  • get plenty of rest
  • eat healthily – a low-fat, high-fibre diet is recommended, including plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables

You may lose your appetite when you have a cold. This is perfectly normal and should only last a few days. Don't force yourself to eat if you're not feeling hungry.

You may also wish to try some of the medications and remedies described below to help relieve your symptoms.

Over-the-counter cold medications

The main medications used to treat cold symptoms are:

  • painkillers – such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, which can help relieve aches and a high temperature (fever)
  • decongestants – which may help relieve a blocked nose
  • cold medicines – containing a combination of painkillers and decongestants

These medications are available from pharmacies without a prescription. They're generally safe for older children and adults to take, but might not be suitable for babies, young children, pregnant women, people with certain underlying health conditions, and people taking certain other medications.

Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine before taking it, and follow the recommended dosage instructions. If you're not sure which treatments are suitable for you or your child, speak to a pharmacist for advice.

More information about over-the-counter cold medicines is provided below.


Paracetamol and ibuprofen can help reduce a fever and also act as painkillers. Aspirin may also help, but it isn't normally recommended for a cold and should never be given to children under the age of 16.

If your child has a cold, look for age-appropriate versions of paracetamol and ibuprofen (usually in liquid form). Always follow the manufacturer's instructions to ensure the correct dose is given.

Taking both ibuprofen and paracetamol at the same time is not usually necessary for a cold and should be avoided in children as using both together may be unsafe. 

Read more about giving your child paracetamol or ibuprofen.

Paracetamol and ibuprofen are also included in some cold medicines. If you're taking painkillers and want to also take a cold medicine, check the patient information leaflet first or ask your pharmacist or GP for advice to avoid exceeding the recommended dose.

If you're pregnant, paracetamol is the preferred choice to treat mild to moderate pain and fever.

Read more about taking paracetamol during pregnancy and taking ibuprofen during pregnancy.


Decongestants can be taken by mouth (oral decongestants), or as drops or a spray into your nose (nasal decongestants). They can help make breathing easier by reducing the swelling inside your nose.

However, they're generally only effective for a short period and they can make your blocked nose worse if they're used for more than a week.

Decongestants are not recommended for children under six years old and children under 12 years old shouldn't take them unless advised by a pharmacist or GP. They're also not suitable for people with certain underlying conditions and those taking certain medications.

Read more about who can use decongestant medication.

Other remedies

The remedies outlined below may also help relieve your symptoms.

Gargling and menthol sweets

Some people find gargling with salt water and sucking on menthol sweets can help relieve a sore throat and blocked nose.

Vapour rubs

Vapour rubs can help babies and young children breathe more easily when they have a cold. Apply the rub to your child's chest and back. Don't apply it to their nostrils because this could cause irritation and breathing difficulties.

Nasal saline drops

Nasal saline (salt water) drops can help relieve a blocked nose in babies and young children.

Vitamin and mineral supplements

There is some evidence to suggest that taking zinc supplements within a day of the symptoms starting will speed up recovery from a cold and reduce the severity of symptoms.

However, there is currently little evidence to suggest that taking vitamin C supplements is beneficial when a cold starts.

Treatments not recommended

The following treatments aren't usually recommended to treat colds because there isn't strong evidence to suggest they're effective, and they may cause unpleasant side effects:

Page last reviewed: 30/04/2015

Next review due: 30/04/2017