How to recover from a cold

By Walgreens Jun 07, 2021 • 4 min

With millions of cases in the U.S. each year, nearly everyone has experienced a cold.

In fact, the common cold is one of the main reasons why adults miss work and children miss school. Learn about cold remedies and how to feel more comfortable as you recover from a cold.

Symptoms of a cold

Cold symptoms often start within one to two days after exposure to the virus. Symptoms in adults can include:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore throat, which often starts on the first day of symptoms but resolves quickly
  • Cough, which generally starts on the fourth or fifth day of symptoms

Children may have many of the same cold symptoms as adults, but colds in children may also cause:

  • Clear, yellow or green-colored nasal discharge
  • Fever (temperature above 100.4°F), which usually only lasts the first three days
  • Irritability
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Loss of appetite
  • Red or swollen lining of the nose
  • Slightly swollen lymph nodes in the neck

How long do colds last?

Most adults with colds usually recover within three to seven days. However, some symptoms, such as nasal and chest congestion, coughing and sneezing, may linger for up to two weeks. In children, cold symptoms last about two weeks, with the worst symptoms occurring during the first 10 days. Colds usually don't cause serious illness or complications. But some viruses that cause a cold can weaken the immune system or cause inflammation in the lining of the nose or airways. This can lead to a secondary viral or bacterial infection.

If your symptoms aren't improving or if they are severe or unusual, consider calling your healthcare provider. Contact your child's healthcare provider if they have any of these symptoms:

  • Fever over 101°F for more than three days, or any fever in a child younger than 3 months
  • Nasal congestion that doesn't get better or gets worse over 10 days
  • Red-colored eyes or yellow discharge coming from the eyes
  • Ear pain, ear pulling or fussiness, which may be signs of an ear infection
  • Refusing to drink anything for an extended period of time
  • Trouble breathing or fast breathing, as this may be a medical emergency
  • Irritability, lethargy (reduced energy) or other behavior changes, as this may be a medical emergency

Caring for common cold symptoms

Unfortunately, there's no cure for the common cold. It's important to know that antibiotics aren't effective against a cold because they work to fight bacteria, not viruses. Like other viral infections, a cold will go away with time, even without treatment. Still, that doesn't mean you have to suffer through your symptoms. You can feel better by following these tips:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink enough water
  • Use a clean, cool mist humidifier or vaporizer. Doing so will add humidity to the air, which can help you breathe more easily when you have a cold. Make sure to change the water each day.
  • Take an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen, to ease pain or fever. Note that children ages 3 to 6 months should only use acetaminophen. Children older than 6 months can receive acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Your child's pediatrician or a pharmacist can help you figure out the correct dose based on their age and weight.
  • Don't smoke or breathe in secondhand smoke or other airborne pollutants

There are also actions you can take to relieve specific cold symptoms:

Symptom Cold
Sore throat Suck on ice chips, popsicles or lozenges. Gargle with salt water. Dissolve ¼–½ teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of warm water. Sip on warm liquids, such as tea or broth. Use a cool mist humidifier or vaporizer. Take an OTC pain reliever.
Nasal congestion and sinus pain and pressure Place a warm compress over your nose and forehead. Breathe in steam from a hot shower. Use a saline nasal spray. Take an OTC decongestant or pain reliever.
Runny nose Drink extra fluids. Use a saline nasal spray. Take an OTC decongestant.
Cough Suck on lozenges. Breathe in steam from a hot shower. Try a cool mist humidifier or vaporizer. Give honey to children over 1 year of age to relieve a nighttime cough.
Ear pain Take an OTC pain reliever.

Be sure to take all medications as directed. Some medicines are combination products, meaning they contain multiple medications, such as a pain reliever and decongestant. Read labels closely to make sure you're not taking too much of any type of medication.

Do not give children OTC cough or cold medication without talking to their healthcare provider first. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends against using cough and cold medications in children younger than 6 years. These medications haven't been shown to be effective in infants and children, and they can cause serious side effects. If you have a child older than 6 years, talk to their healthcare provider before giving them an OTC cough or cold medication. Children under 18 years also shouldn't take aspirin due to the risk of Reye's syndrome, a serious illness that affects the brain and liver.

Before you try any alternative treatments for a cold, such as vitamin C or herbs, talk to your healthcare provider. These products likely won't cause harm, but they also haven't been shown to be effective in clinical studies for the treatment of colds. There also isn't scientific evidence to support using essential oil for colds.

In general, most people recover from a cold within about a week. While there's no cure for the common cold, resting and caring for your symptoms can help you feel better.

Clinically reviewed and updated June 2021.

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