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Home > Health Library > Colds
Colds are a common illness caused by many different viruses. They usually last 1 to 2 weeks. They can cause a stuffy nose, a sore throat, and a cough. You can catch a cold at any time of year, but they're more common in late winter and early spring. There's no cure for colds.
Lots of different viruses cause colds, but the symptoms are usually the same. They include:
You will probably feel a cold come on over the course of a couple of days. As the cold gets worse, your nose may get stuffy with thicker mucus.
A cold isn't the same as the flu (influenza). Flu symptoms are worse and come on faster. If you have the flu, you may feel very tired. You may also have a fever and shaking chills, lots of aches and pains, a headache, and a cough.
If you feel like you have a cold all the time, or if cold symptoms last more than 2 weeks, you may have allergies or sinusitis.
Good home treatment of a cold can help you feel better. When you get a cold:
You may decide to try a cough, cold, or allergy medicine for your symptoms. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label. Don't take cold medicine that uses several drugs to treat different symptoms. For example, don't take medicine that contains both a decongestant for a stuffy nose and a cough medicine. Treat each symptom on its own.
You can take acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin) to relieve aches. If you give medicine to your child, follow what your doctor has told you about the amount to give.
A decongestant can help with a stuffy nose. Don't use the medicine longer than the label says. Overuse of a nasal decongestant can cause rebound congestion. It makes your mucous membranes swell up more than before you used the spray.
Cough medicines can cause problems for people who have certain health problems, such as asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, or an enlarged prostate (BPH). They may also interact with sedatives, certain antidepressants, and other medicines. Read the package carefully, or ask your pharmacist or doctor to help you choose.
Be careful with cough and cold medicines. Don't give them to children younger than 6. They don't work for children that age and can even be harmful. For children 6 and older, always follow all the instructions carefully. Make sure you know how much medicine to give and how long to use it. And use the dosing device if one is included.
Some people try dietary supplements to prevent colds or to shorten their cold symptoms. Before you use any treatment for your cold symptoms, make sure to think about the risks and benefits of the treatment.
Some of the medicines being studied are:
Study results differ about whether echinacea can keep you from getting a cold or can help you get better faster. It can cause severe allergic reactions in some people with a history of asthma, allergies, hay fever, or eczema.
Long-term daily use of vitamin C in large doses doesn't appear to keep you from getting a cold or help you get better faster. There may be a slight reduction in the length of time cold symptoms last when high doses are taken. More studies must be done to find out how much vitamin C is needed to reduce the length of time that cold symptoms last.
Using a product containing zinc may help shorten the length of your cold by up to a day.footnote 1 But you have to take the zinc as soon as you have any cold symptoms. In some cases, zinc products that you spray or place into your nose can cause permanent loss of the sense of smell.footnote 2
If you decide to use an alternative medicine or supplement, follow these precautions:
There are several things you can do to help prevent colds:
Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:
Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:
Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:
Singh M, Das RR (2011). Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (3).
Davidson TM, Smith WM (2010). The Bradford Hill criteria and zinc-induced anosmia: A causality analysis. Archives of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery, 136(7): 673–676.
Current as of:
July 1, 2021
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineJohn Pope MD - PediatricsE. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Current as of: July 1, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & John Pope MD - Pediatrics & E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
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