Every day I wish I had a cure for the common cold. When someone comes into the office, feeling terrible because of a cold, they are hopeful that I will have a quick way to make them better. When I have to explain that I don’t have a quick fix, their disappointment and frustration are so apparent. This interaction is so hard for me because I find so much joy in being helpful. Doctors often refer to the common cold as a viral upper respiratory infection or viral URI. Viral URI’s will resolve with time (the time it takes for your immune system to fight the virus). The duration of a viral URI can vary, from several days to over a month of symptoms. My experience has been that people who push themselves very hard (traveling, working extremely hard, not sleeping) while they have a viral URI tend to have symptoms that last longer.
Antibiotics Don't Help
Antibiotics are not helpful in treating the common cold because antibiotics treat bacterial infections and not viral infections. Antibiotics do not prevent a bacterial infection. I worry about antibiotic resistance and hope that you can share my concerns as this is a serious threat to global public health. When antibiotics are used for a viral illness we increase the rates of development of antibiotic resistance. In addition, antibiotics can carry side effects, sometimes serious ones. I strongly encourage you to be sure you are diagnosed with a bacterial infection before you take an antibiotic.
Many of the conventional over-the-counter treatments that are advertised for the common cold are designed to treat the symptoms but not the underlying virus. Common examples include decongestants,cough medicines, antihistamines, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen. There are a number of herbal supplements that are advertised to boost the immune system in order to better defend against the virus. Common examples include andrographis, echinacea,vitamin C, and zinc.
I generally encourage people to continue with what has worked for them in the past in resolving their symptoms. However, I do have some preferences in my approach to coping with the common cold. Personally, I just focus on rest and healthy food and know that it will pass. If you are interested in taking something, there is a specific supplement of andrographis called Kan Jang that has been shown to reduce the severity and duration of cold symptoms. For the best effect you would need to take it within 72 hours of the onset of symptoms. A similar option but one with less robust evidence is to use a supplement of echinacea purpurea. I don’t recommend taking a vitamin C supplement, but it probably won’t hurt. I do think there is value in ramping up the foods with high vitamin C (oranges, strawberries, kale). I also believe that a menthol rub (like Vicks VapoRub), eucalyptus essential oil steam (use several drops of essential oil in hot water or a vaporizer and breathe in the steam), honey and lemon tea, or a nasal lavage can help more immediately with congestion and cough. Look back at my blog about fever to understand more about my perspective on treating fever.
Keep up with good healthy rest and real food and when the cold comes along, be patient, it will pass.