Treatment of the common cold

Am Fam Physician. 2007 Feb 15;75(4):515-20.


The common cold is a viral illness that affects persons of all ages, prompting frequent use of over-the-counter and prescription medications and alternative remedies. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms (e.g., cough, nasal congestion, rhinorrhea). Dextromethorphan may be beneficial in adults with cough, but its effectiveness has not been demonstrated in children and adolescents. Codeine has not been shown to effectively treat cough caused by the common cold. Although hydrocodone is widely used and has been shown to effectively treat cough caused by other conditions, the drug has not been studied in patients with colds. Topical (intranasal) and oral nasal decongestants have been shown to relieve nasal symptoms and can be used in adolescents and adults for up to three days. Antihistamines and combination antihistamine/decongestant therapies can modestly improve symptoms in adults; however, the benefits must be weighed against potential side effects. Newer nonsedating antihistamines are ineffective against cough. Topical ipratropium, a prescription anticholinergic, relieves nasal symptoms in older children and adults. Antibiotics have not been shown to improve symptoms or shorten illness duration. Complementary and alternative therapies (i.e., Echinacea, vitamin C, and zinc) are not recommended for treating common cold symptoms; however, humidified air and fluid intake may be useful without adverse side effects. Vitamin C prophylaxis may modestly reduce the duration and severity of the common cold in the general population and may reduce the incidence of the illness in persons exposed to physical and environmental stresses.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Antitussive Agents / therapeutic use
  • Ascorbic Acid / therapeutic use
  • Cerebrospinal Fluid Rhinorrhea / drug therapy
  • Child
  • Common Cold / drug therapy
  • Common Cold / therapy*
  • Echinacea
  • Fluid Therapy
  • Histamine H1 Antagonists / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Humidity
  • Nasal Decongestants / therapeutic use
  • Phytotherapy
  • Zinc Compounds / therapeutic use


  • Antitussive Agents
  • Histamine H1 Antagonists
  • Nasal Decongestants
  • Zinc Compounds
  • Ascorbic Acid