Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit, the AAFP patient education website.

Information from Your Family Doctor

Treating the Common Cold in Adults


Am Fam Physician. 2012 Jul 15;86(2):online.

  See related article on treatment of the common cold in children and adults.

What do I do if I have a cold?

Most colds don't cause serious illness and will get better over time. Cold symptoms in adults can be treated with some over-the-counter medicines. Talk to your doctor about what is best for you.

What over-the-counter treatments are helpful in adults?

  • Choosing an over-the-counter medicine that contains an antihistamine and a decongestant may help you cough less and breath better through your nose. Cough medicines such as dextromethorphan (one brand: Robitussin) and guaifenesin (one brand: Mucinex) may help some people.

  • If you have a headache or body aches, pain medicines such as ibuprofen (one brand: Advil) can help. The pain medicine naproxen (one brand: Aleve) also may be used for cough.

  • Herbal products, such as Echinacea purpurea, Pelargonium sidoides (geranium) extract (one brand: Umcka Coldcare), and Andrographis paniculata (one brand: Kalmcold), may reduce cold symptoms.

  • Zinc taken in the first 24 hours of cold symptoms may reduce how many days you have a cold, and you may also get fewer symptoms. You can take one lozenge every two hours while awake for as long as you have cold symptoms. But, they may give you a bad taste in your mouth or upset your stomach. Zinc nose sprays should not be used.

What treatments are not helpful in adults?

  • Antibiotics

  • Antihistamines without decongestants

  • Codeine

  • Echinacea angustifolia

  • Saline nasal spray

  • Vitamin C

This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.


Copyright © 2012 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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