What to Take for a Cold? An Informative Guide for Treating Cold Symptoms

Colds are one of the most common illnesses that affect us all. At some point or another, we've all suffered from a runny nose, sore throat, coughing, and overall feelings of bleh. While colds usually go away on their own within a week or two, the symptoms can make us miserable in the meantime.

If you've caught a cold and are wondering what you can take to find some relief, this guide covers various medication and home remedy options for treating those unpleasant cold symptoms. Arm yourself with the knowledge to fight back against colds!

Over-the-Counter Medication Options for Colds

When we start to feel a cold coming on, most of us head straight to the drugstore to stock up on over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Here are some of the most common OTC drugs used for cold symptom relief:


Decongestants such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine work by constricting blood vessels in the nasal passages. This helps open up a stuffy nose so you can breathe easier. Decongestants come in oral tablets or nasal sprays.

Keep in mind that oral decongestants can raise your blood pressure and heart rate. They also can interfere with sleep, so it's best to take them during the daytime.


Antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl), loratadine (Claritin), or cetirizine (Zyrtec) work by blocking histamines, which are chemicals released by the immune system during an allergic reaction.

They help relieve sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, and itching of the nose or throat. Antihistamines make some people drowsy, so use caution if driving or operating machinery.

Cough Suppressants

Cough suppressants containing dextromethorphan (DXM) suppress the cough reflex. This provides temporary relief for hacking coughs, allowing you to get the rest you need.

Other oral cough medications coat and soothe an irritated throat, like those containing menthol or benzocaine. Cough drops can bring soothing relief to a sore throat as well.


Expectorants like guaifenesin help thin mucus secretions in the lungs, making coughs more productive. With thinner mucus, it’s easier to cough up phlegm from the lungs and clear congestion.

Useful Home Remedies for Cold Symptoms

In addition to over-the-counter meds, there are several natural home remedies that can ease cold discomforts:

Hot Showers

Letting the hot steam and water run over you in the shower can help open up and drain nasal passages and soothe a sore throat. Add a few drops of eucalyptus or menthol oil to the shower floor for extra decongestant effects as you breathe in the aromatic vapors.

Saltwater Gargle

Gargling with warm salt water 2-3 times per day can help reduce swollen tissues and mucus in the throat, bringing temporary pain relief. It may also flush out bacterial and viral particles.


Honey has natural antibacterial and antioxidant benefits. Sipping a hot drink with honey, such as tea, can coat and soothe an irritated throat. Research shows honey may also help relieve nighttime coughing.

Chicken Soup

Chicken soup is a classic home remedy for colds and congestion. The warm broth can thin out mucus while the chicken provides cysteine amino acids that may help thin mucus as well. Sipping this Grandma-approved soup is comforting and nourishing.


Staying hydrated thins out mucus while keeping nasal passages moist. Drink plenty of water, soup broths, or non-caffeinated teas. You can also try hot lemon water, which may loosen phlegm and reduce congestion.


Using a humidifier adds moisture back into dry, irritated airways. This can loosen up congestion and make breathing easier. Be sure to keep humidifiers clean to avoid spreading bacteria or mold.


Don't underestimate the healing power of rest! Your body needs adequate sleep and downtime to fight off cold viruses. Nap when you can, and go to bed early to allow your body to recharge.

When to See a Doctor

Most colds run their course without needing medical treatment. However, see your doctor right away if you experience:

  • High fever over 102°F (39°C)
  • Severe headaches, facial or ear pain
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing
  • Chest pain when coughing
  • Thick or bloody mucus
  • Symptoms lasting more than 10 days

These could indicate a more serious infection like pneumonia, sinusitis, or bronchitis. People at high risk for complications, such as those over age 65, pregnant women, or those with chronic medical conditions, should also follow up with their doctor when experiencing cold symptoms.

Your doctor can evaluate your symptoms, provide prescriptions if needed for bacterial infections, and recommend ways to keep comfortable as your cold runs its course.

The Bottom Line on Treating Colds

Colds can make us pretty miserable with symptoms like coughing, sore throat, congestion, and body aches. Over-the-counter decongestants, antihistamines, expectorants, and cough medicine can provide symptom relief in the short term. Natural home remedies like steam, chicken soup, honey, and hydration may also ease cold discomforts.

While our first instinct is usually to throw everything we can at a cold, remember that colds are caused by viruses, so antibiotics are ineffective. Most importantly, get plenty of rest until your body's immune system beats the bug! Before long, you'll be back to breathing - and feeling - easy again.

Frequently Asked Questions About Colds

How long do colds last?

Most colds run their course within 7-10 days. Coughing may linger for up to 2 weeks until all the mucus has cleared from your lungs.

What causes a cold?

Colds are caused by over 200 different viruses, including rhinoviruses, adenoviruses, enteroviruses, and coronaviruses. The same virus usually doesn’t cause colds repeatedly.

Are colds contagious?

Yes, colds are very contagious, especially in the first 2-3 days when nasal secretions contain high amounts of cold virus. Colds spread through person-to-person contact, surfaces, and airborne droplets from coughs or sneezes.

Should I take antibiotics for a cold?

No, antibiotics are ineffective against viral infections like colds and can contribute to antibiotic resistance. However, see your doctor if symptoms persist beyond 10 days as you may have a secondary bacterial infection requiring antibiotics.

How can I prevent catching a cold?

Washing hands frequently, avoiding close contact with anyone who’s sick, and not sharing items like utensils or glasses with others can help prevent catching or spreading colds. Getting adequate sleep, eating healthy, exercising, and reducing stress also keeps your immune system strong.


Tackling a cold head-on can mean the difference between lingering misery and bouncing back quickly. Arm yourself with the remedies above to start feeling yourself again! Rest up and stay hydrated - before you know it, you'll be back to your healthy, happy self once more.

Previous Post Next Post