You can’t ‘stop’ a cold. Here’s what you can do.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Geoffrey W. Rutledge
Chief Medical Officer and Co-founder
Last updated on April 6, 2021

We all know that dreaded feeling that a cold is coming on. Your throat gets a little scratchy. Your joints ache a bit. Your nose is stuffed.

There’s no way to “stop” the common cold. It’s a viral infection, and the only cure is time. However, there are things you can do immediately to try to minimize your symptoms.

It’s important to distinguish between what’s effective and what might work, from the things that are flat-out myths. So, we’ve put together this post to sort everything out.

What is the common cold?

Colds are caused by a variety of viruses such as rhinoviruses. They differ from other respiratory viruses like the flu and COVID-19 in that colds usually cause milder symptoms and resolve on their own within a week or less.

That said, they share many of the same symptoms of the flu and COVID, or even seasonal allergies. The Mayo Clinic has a helpful guide to distinguish between the four if you’re unsure. Alternately, HealthTap users can search their symptoms on HealthTap AI or Dr. Q&A, and subscribers can connect with a doctor 24/7 in usually less than a minute.

Woman with a cold resting.jpg

Cold treatments that work

Rest

You’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: getting enough sleep is important to prevent and fight off illness.

Your T-cells — disease-fighting cells — decrease when you lose sleep. Getting the right amount of rest strengthens your body so it is the most equipped at fighting infection.

Aim for 8 hours each night. Maybe more if you’re already sick.

Stay hydrated

It’s easy to become dehydrated when you’re sick. So make sure you’re getting plenty of water. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy — plain old tap water will do.

Staying hydrated will also help break up mucus, which as we all know can be one of the main (and most annoying) symptoms during a cold.

And remember: it’s just as important to not-dehydrate. Stay away from alcohol and caffeinated beverages, which are diuretics and will make you more dehydrated. (Watch out especially for caffeinated teas. If your tea isn’t labeled with the phrase “caffeine-free,” it probably has caffeine in it.)

Use salt water

Salt water, in a couple of different forms, can help ease stuffy noses and sore throats:

  • Nasal saline solution: Saline solution keeps the membranes of your nasal passage moist, which makes it harder for germs to take hold. It also helps clear out excess mucus, which can prevent you from becoming more congested.
  • Salt-water gargle: Warm salt water helps to soothe a sore throat. It helps draw excess fluid from the inflamed tissue, which can result in less pain and inflammation.

Use pain relievers if necessary

If your symptoms are really getting to you, you can try over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication like acetaminophen (e.g. Tylenol), ibuprofen (e.g. Advil) or aspirin.

IMPORTANT: children younger than 6 months should only have acetaminophen; be sure to check with your doctor for the correct dosage.

For kids older than 6 months, stick to acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Aspirin can be dangerous in certain circumstances.

Vitamin tablet dissolving in water.jpg

Cold treatments that might work

You’ve probably heard this-or-that supplement can “cure” or “stop” a cold. Again: once you have a cold, nothing but your own immune system and time will make it go away.

But can supplements help speed things along? The answer is...maybe.

The research on most of these is mixed, so proceed with that knowledge and use caution — supplements can have other, unwanted side effects you might not know about.

  • Echinacea: According to the National Institutes of Health, “[studies] investigating Echinacea for preventing colds did not show statistically significant reductions in illness occurrence. However, nearly all [studies] pointed in the direction of small preventive effects.”
  • Elderberry: The jury’s still out on this one. Two studies suggested Elderberry reduced the duration of cold and flu symptoms, but a more recent study said that’s not the case.
  • Zinc: The study that suggested zinc as a potential cold treatment came out in 1984. A lot has happened since then, but nothing has shown it to be an effective treatment. There’s also reason for caution — zinc is toxic in high doses, so talk to your doctor before you try it.
Man reading antibiotics prescription.jpg

Cold treatments that don’t work

Antibiotics

Colds are, by definition, viral infections. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections and will have no effect on colds.

Well, at least it can’t hurt, right?

Wrong, actually.

Overuse and misuse of antibiotics have given rise to a phenomenon called antibiotic resistance. Essentially, medications that used to treat certain bacteria are less effective now or don’t work at all. The Mayo Clinic has called this “one of the world’s most pressing health problems.

So, think twice before you use an old prescription to try to treat the common cold. (And always dispose of your old medications properly.)

If you get sick, HealthTap is here to help

You can connect with one of our U.S.-based, board-certified doctors any time — usually in less than a minute. Log in or sign up at HealthTap.com, or download our Android or iOS app. Our doctors will be able to give you more top-notch medical advice on what you can do to recover as fast as possible.

HealthTap Editors

HealthTap Editors

HealthTap articles are reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Visit https://www.healthtap.com/about-doctors/ to learn more and meet some of the medical editorial board members behind our blog. The information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. HealthTap is a virtual-first, affordable urgent- and primary-care clinic, providing top-quality physician care nationwide to Americans with or without insurance. Our proprietary, easy-to-use, and innovative apps and electronic medical record apply Silicon Valley standards to effectively engage consumers and doctors online to increase the equity, accessibility, and efficiency of ongoing medical care for consumers, providers, employers, and payers. In addition, with HealthTap, businesses can offer virtual primary care to employees for less than the cost of free coffee. HealthTap's US-based board-certified physicians are available throughout North America. For more information, visit www.healthtap.com.
Share:

More articles in Health Tips

Health Tips

For mental health, ask your primary care doctor first

Treatment for mental health often starts somewhere you may not expect—a virtual visit with your primary care doctor
Health Tips

Hair loss in men and women: Where's my hair?

Whether your hair is slowly thinning or falling out in clumps, hair loss in men and women can be caused by a variety of things.
Health Tips

Yeast infection vs. STI: How to tell the difference

HealthTap online doctors put together a quick guide to point you in the right direction about the difference between yeast infection and STI
Health Tips

16 awkward conversations made easier with HealthTap online doctors

We all know we should talk to HealthTap online doctors about our health. And yet, almost all of us at some point will encounter a symptom or condition we’d rather not mention.
Health Tips

Is staring at screens bad for your eyes? Our online doctors weigh in

In recognition of Eye Injury Prevention Month in October and World Sight Day on October 14, we’ve rounded up some of the top eye health tips from HealthTap’s network of 90,000+ doctors.
Health Tips

Is it a cold sore, or herpes (and what’s the difference)?

A cold sore, herpes, or something else entirely? We’re here with top HealthTap online doctors to sort out what’s what, and what you need to do if you think you may have one of these ailments.
Read more

Not just a doctor —
your doctor