Arguably the worst part about having a bad cold is aware there are no meds that can make it go away. Letting the virus run its course is the only option. But browsing the drugstore aisles, you'll find that there are endless cold remedies that claim to treat symptoms and help. From pain relievers to cough medicine and decongestants, there's a product that claims to fix just about everything. So how do you know what works?

Different medications treat different symptoms, so it's important to know what's what. Selecting the right meds to treat your symptoms will give you more specific relief, and keep you from taking medicine. drowsy for no good reason.

Here are the common types of treatments touted as cold remedies, and how to know which ones are worth trying.

Here's what's proven to help:

OTC pain relievers

Analgesics like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help with symptoms of fever, headache, muscle ache, sore throat, and ear pain, Margarita Rohr, MD, internist and instructor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells SELF. "I definitely recommend that to help with those specific symptoms," she says.

Nasal decongestants

Rohr also recommend taking a decongestant if you have mostly nasal symptoms-stuffy, runny, sneezy. Your best bet is pseudoephedrine. It works by contracting and narrowing the blood vessels in the nose and sinuses, shrinking the tissue and reducing blood flow. The other ingredient you can get is phenylephrine, which also works as a decongestant, but is not as strong. Medications containing pseudoephedrine, like Sudafed, are available for the benefit of the counter and you need to be 18 or older to buy it. (It's a stimulant and is used illegally to make methamphetamines.)

Saline nasal spray

"It does not decongest, per se, but it just clears out the nose temporarily, "Rohr says. A saline spray also helps improve dryness, which can prevent. 66 nosebleeds for those who tend to get them when they’re sick. Try Simply Saline Allergy & Sinus Adult Nasal Mist (, $ 6) .

Cough syrup

Dextromethorphan is usually the active ingredient in OTC cough medications like Nyquil and Robitussin. "A lot of the cold remedies have that," and it works, Rohr says. In many states, it's available because of the counter to adults 18 and older. (It's known to be abused recreationally, mostly among teens.) Some cough medications may also include guaifenesin, which is used to thin the mucous so that it's easier to get out-through through coughing or blowing your nose. These medications, like Mucinex, are called expectorants.

Cough drops

Throat lozenges and cough drops may help soothe a sore throat and calm a cough temporarily. Herbal ones like Ricola employ ingredients like thyme, peppermint, and sage, which are used in alternative medicine to decongest and temper cough. Drops with dextromethorphan are also available, and may work better. Products that contain phenol and / or benzocaine, like Chloraseptic throat lozenges and sprays, can also provide temporary relief. "The way they work is that they act as a local anesthetic to temporarily numb the area and provide a short-term relief of sore throat," explains Rohr. "Unfortunately, the effects do not last very long."

Tea and soup

Chicken noodle soup and tea are go-to cold remedies because they can be extremely soothing, and their warmth mucus through your nose. They'll also help you stay hydrated. "When you have a cold and fever with that, you tend to get" 84 dehydrated, so replenishing your fluids will help, "Rohr says.


A humidifier can put some moisture into the air, helping soothe a bad cough so you can breathe (and sleep) easier. Choose a cool mist option over steam, the Mayo Clinic suggests, because it hasn't been shown to help and can cause burns. And don’t forget to change the water daily and clean it regularly. Try Vicks EasyFill Cool Mist Humidifier (, $60), or if you want to splurge, Stadler Form E-002 Eva Ultrasonic Humidifier (, $ 200) .


Though the regular exercise helps keep your immune system running efficiently, resting your body is a really simple, indispensable way to give your body the time and energy it needs to fight off infection. Do not underestimate the healing powers of a few good nights' sleep.

The science is a little iffy on these, but they will be worth trying:


Some cold and flu products combine an antihistamine with a decongestant. "It tends to work better with both of them together," Rohr says. Research mostly suggests antihistamines are not effective in treating the common cold, although some older antihistamines, like diphenhydramine and chlorpheniramine, have was shown to reduce the secretion of mucus and widen airways, according to Harvard Health. They also make you drowsy (hence Benedryl’s rep), which is why they've been traded out for newer meds with fewer side effects. These newer antihistamines found in OTC allergy medications like Claritin and Zyrtec do not appear to have any cold-fighting benefits. "It's not clear why and has not really been studied, but we just have to find them, do not work as well [against colds] as the older ones," Rohr says.

Chest rubs

Rohr notes that there are not any scientific studies to say that these things work, but some people may get relief from them. As long as you do not like it or put it up your nose or in your eyes, using Vox VapoRub is not going to hurt you. The main ingredient, menthol, does not actually decongest or reduce nasal swelling, but it creates a cooling sensation that basically tricks up your brain. It also contains eucalyptus and thyme, both essential oils used traditionally to thin mucus and prevent cough.

Here are the cold remedies that you might want to rethink:

Nasal decongestant sprays

These are nasal decongestants. Rohr says they work, but she does not recommend them. "The reason is it'll work fine for about two to three days, and after that, you'll get an increase in the amount of congestion," she says. This is called a rebound effect. If you need relief, she says it's okay. It's ok to use for two or three days, but then you should stop taking it ... before it starts to backfire.

Zinc lozenges

Zinc has been shown to reduce the length of the cold. It's also been linked to fewer colds throughout the year. But, according to the Mayo Clinic, the studies are not convincing enough for widespread recommendations, and it's still unclear what an effective dose should be. Rohr also warns that while zinc may shorten a cold's duration, there are side effects. Taken orally, it can cause nausea. Nasal spays with zinc can impact your sense of smell. "You can lose your sense of smell." It's not dose-dependent, so it can happen after taking just a few of them, "Rohr says.

Vitamin C

Most research suggests that loading up on vitamin C is pretty useless once you're sick. But getting enough is enough on the regular basis. Ditch the under-the-weather vitamin C binge, and just get a daily dose of C from your food. Even if it does not help you get sick, eating vitamin C-rich fruits is good for you regardless.


The jury is still on or not this herbal remedy helps a cold . According to the National Institute of Health, taking echinacea after you catch the cold virus doesn't seem to help shorten the duration. Taking it while you're well may reduce your chance of catching a cold, but the evidence is shaky. Short-term use is probably safe for most adults, but long-term safety isn't well studied. Some people may develop allergic reactions when taking echinacea, and the supplement may interact with other drugs, so make sure to ask your doc about that before starting to take it.

Whatever you do, pay attention to all the things you’re putting in your body at once.

Choosing a cold medication with multiple active ingredients is efficient, but you need to be careful. "Sometimes OTC medications have a combo of drugs in them, sometimes they'll have acetaminophen or ibuprofen mixed in with the decongestant or cough suppressant. You want to be aware that you're not taking any additional acetaminophen or ibuprofen on top of that because of that people's overdose, "Rohr explains. Taking too much acetaminophen can cause liver damage (mixing it with booze is bad, too). The greatest concern with taking too much is ibuprofen is that it can irritate the stomach lining. Always read the ingredient lists before you start taking a new medication to make sure you're not doubling up on any of the drugs, and check with your doctor to make sure it's compatible with any other medications or supplements you're already on.


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