Manage Common Cold

Key points

  • The common cold has no cure but should improve on its own.
  • Antibiotics don't work against viruses and won't help you feel better.
  • If you have cold-like symptoms and suspect you have COVID-19 or flu, get tested, especially if you are at higher risk for severe illness. Antiviral treatments are available for COVID-19 and flu and work best when started very soon after symptoms begin.
Sick woman on a couch draped in a blanket drinking tea and treating her cold symptoms.


Most people with cold symptoms (runny nose, cough, sore throat) will not require specific treatment. They can take steps to manage their symptoms and prevent spreading the virus. However, there are rare cases when a viral infection can lead to a bacterial infection, like pneumonia, which requires antibiotics.


If you don't need antibiotics, you shouldn't take them. They can cause side effects ranging from mild reactions, like a rash, to more serious health problems. Problems can include severe allergic reactions, antimicrobial-resistant infections, and C. diff infection. C. diff causes diarrhea that can lead to severe colon damage and death.

If a healthcare provider diagnoses your illness as COVID-19 or flu, you may be eligible for antiviral treatment that can lessen symptoms and shorten the time you are sick. You should start COVID-19 treatment within 5-7 days after symptoms begin or within 2 days for flu treatment. Contact your healthcare provider promptly if you have symptoms and are at higher risk for complications from COVID-19 or flu. Treatment may reduce your risk of complications, including those that can result in hospitalization or death.

There are currently no antivirals that work against other respiratory viruses that cause cold symptoms.

Manage symptoms

In most cases, your cold symptoms will get better on their own with time.


Ask your healthcare provider or pharmacist about over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, such as pain relievers and fever reducers. These can lessen symptoms and help you feel better. Be sure to mention any other prescription or OTC medicines you are taking. Always use OTC medicines as directed. Remember, OTC medicines may provide temporary relief of symptoms, but will not cure your illness.


OTC cough/cold medicines are not recommended for children younger than 6 years old and can result in serious and sometimes life-threatening side effects. But young children can have acetaminophen or ibuprofen for fever. Contact your healthcare provider about the correct dose and read and follow all directions.

Below are ways you can feel better while your body fights off cold symptoms:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Use a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer.
  • Use saline nasal spray or drops.
    • For young children, use a rubber suction bulb to clear mucus.
  • Breathe in steam from a bowl of hot water or shower.
    • Sit with a young child in a bathroom with steam from a running shower.
  • Use throat lozenges or cough drops.
    • Do not give lozenges to children younger than 4 years old.
  • Use honey to relieve cough for adults and children at least 1 year old.
    • Babies younger than 1 year old should not be given honey.

Get more information on preventing the spread of respiratory viruses when you are sick.

When to seek medical care

If you or your child has symptoms of a respiratory virus and is at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 or flu, contact your healthcare provider right away even if your illness is mild. You might be eligible for early antiviral treatments that work best when started soon after symptoms begin.

For everyone:

Seek medical care if you or your child has:

  • Trouble breathing or fast breathing
  • Dehydration
  • Fever that lasts longer than 4 days
  • Symptoms that last more than 10 days without getting better
  • Symptoms, such as fever or cough, that improve then return or worsen
  • Chronic medical conditions the get worse

This list is not all-inclusive. Please see a healthcare provider for any symptom that is severe or concerning.


You can take steps to reduce your risk of getting a respiratory virus or spreading one to others. Read CDC's Respiratory Virus Guidance.


Download the Common Cold Fact Sheet for how to manage your symptoms and prevent getting sick.