3 Ways to Treat Colds, and the Cure for the Common Cold

There are one billion colds in the US each year. What causes them and what can be done to prevent and treat them?

Rob Lamberts, MD
5-minute read
Episode #18

Today I am going to cover the topic of the common cold. Did you know that there is a cure for the common cold?

Each year, there are over a billion colds in the US. That’s a lot of grumpy people and a lot of tissue!

Quick and Dirty Tips for Treating a Cold

  1. Take care of yourself
  2. Treat your symptoms
  3. Moisturize

But What is a Cold?

The term “common cold” refers to an acute illness that causes the following symptoms:

  • Nasal congestion

  • Runny nose

  • Sneezing

  • Sore throat

I figure you probably knew that, but it’s always good to make sure you define your terms. Additional symptoms may also be present, including:

  • Cough

  • Headache

  • Decreased appetite

  • Your head feeling like someone filled your nasal and sinus passages with lead while you weren’t watching

Fever tends to not be present in adults, but is common to see in children with colds. The symptoms generally last under a week.

Doctors, of course, have a fancier term for colds, calling them upper respiratory infections. They are the same thing, but it sounds much smarter than saying it’s a cold. At least it’s not a Latin word.

What Causes Colds?

Colds are caused by any of 200+ viruses, with the majority of them being from the rhinovirus family. They call them this because under an electron microscope, the viruses have horns and charge other viruses.

Actually, the name comes from the Greek word for nose, but that didn’t sound exciting enough.

These viruses are highly contagious because a person with the virus will spread it to nearly anything they touch, infecting the next person who touches it. That’s why most colds infect multiple family members (for more on how infections are spread please refer to my episode about influenza).

What are Good Cures for Colds?

I do have some good news, though: there actually is a cure for the common cold. It’s called time. After a while, your body will fight off cold viruses and cure you nearly 100% of the time.

After a while, your body will fight off cold viruses and cure you nearly 100% of the time.

Sorry if that is not a glamorous answer, but there is no real need for a cure. The treatment of these infections doesn’t focus on curing them but instead almost entirely on treating symptoms while your body goes after the infection.

What about Zinc? There was a lot of buzz around this metal, as one study showed that sucking on a zinc lozenge decreased the rate of infection with cold viruses. No other study has verified this. Again, it doesn’t hurt to use zinc, but it can put a nasty taste in your mouth.

The same holds for Vitamin C and Echinacea; they don’t hurt you, but there is little evidence they make colds go away faster. The good news, however, is that no matter what you do, colds almost always go away.

How to Treat a Cold

So, the focus of treatment is centered on reducing symptoms so you are not as difficult to be around. Here are my Quick and Dirty Tips for what to do if you catch a cold:

1.      Take Care of Yourself – Get rest and eat right. Your body is working hard to get better; give it all the help you can. You don’t have to lie in bed all day, but don’t stay up to watch Letterman.

2.      Treat Symptoms – Decongestants, cough medications, and pain and fever reducers are available separately or in combinations of all sorts. Antihistamines, which are present in many cold medications, aren’t much good for a cold, although they may make it easier to sleep. Check the labels and pick a medication that matches your symptoms.

3.      Moisturize – Using a humidifier and saline nasal spray can make your mucous easier to blow out of your nose. Keeping things loose will make it less likely for it to turn into a bacterial infection like a sinus or ear infection.

You may have heard of recent recommendations to not use cold medications in young children. That is not because they are dangerous, but because no study has shown they really help children. Without that benefit, even the really small risk these drugs pose is not worth taking. I tell parents not to give them to kids under 2.

When Should You Worry About Your Cold?

Sometimes colds can become more significant infections. Ear and sinus infections are the most common of these, and may need antibiotics if they are bad. Be careful with young children who develop bad coughs, as there are a few serious viral infections they can get. 

In my opinion, it’s never wrong to come to the doctor’s office. If you are worried there may be something more serious going on, go to your doctor. I never mind having someone ask me easy questions. Just don’t push for antibiotics. Giving antibiotics to someone with a virus runs the risk of producing resistant bacteria. Listen to my antibiotic podcast if you still have questions about this.

Common Cold Myths

Finally, there are some things you may have heard about that are not true:

  • You don’t get a cold by letting your feet get cold, going to bed with wet hair, or going outside without a jacket. No matter how many moms or grandmothers say so, it just isn’t true.

  • Starving colds and feeding fevers is dumb advice. Just eat healthy food no matter how you feel. Listen to Nutrition Diva (come to think of it, she even has an episode about foods that may help you catch fewer colds).

  • Drinking extra fluids doesn’t do more than make you have to pee a lot. Just drink enough to avoid dehydration.

  • Green mucous doesn’t mean you need antibiotics. Mucous will eventually turn green in most colds.

  • Bronchitis is a term describing inflammation in the airways leading to the lungs. Doctors use this term for people with a loose cough. Most bronchitis is viral, and does not require antibiotics.

That’s all I have to say about colds. Next week I’ll continue my series on diabetes.

If you have subjects you want me to cover, let me know by emailing me at housecalldoctor@quickanddirtytips.com. You can find me on Twitter as @housecalldoc and on Facebook under “House Call Doctor.”

Let me remind you that this article is for informational purposes only. My goal is to add to your medical knowledge and translate some of the weird medical stuff you hear, so when you do go to your doctor, your visits will be more fruitful. I don’t intend to replace your doctor; he or she is the one you should always consult about your own medical condition.

Catch you next time! Stay Healthy!

Sick Girl image from Shutterstock

Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.