How Is the Common Cold Diagnosed?


In most cases, the common cold resolves independently and rarely requires a doctor's visit. However, you should see a primary care doctor if symptoms worsen, persist, or are severe. Doctors can typically diagnose common colds based on symptoms and will be able to tell you if you're experiencing something other than a cold.

A primary care specialist can diagnose these common cold complications and recommend at-home and over-the-counter treatments. Antibiotics or other treatments may also be prescribed.

How Is the Common Cold Treated?


There is no cure for the common cold, but it can usually be treated by taking over-the-counter medications, getting rest, and having plenty of fluids. It typically resolves on its own without serious illness.

The following common cold medications and treatments can help reduce the symptoms in adults:

Lifestyle and at-home treatments

  • Rest. Getting extra rest and sleep may help you recover from a cold more quickly.
  • Fluids. Staying hydrated can help you feel better when recovering from the common cold.
  • Warm liquids. Herbal tea, broth, soup, and warm juice or water can help soothe a scratchy or sore throat.
  • Temperature and humidity adjustments. A comfortably warm room can help ensure your nasal and throat passages do not dry out further or become more irritated.
  • Sore throat remedies. Honey, whether on its own or mixed in with warm water or herbal tea, can help ease a sore or scratchy throat.


  • Pain relievers. You can take OTC acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or OTC ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin) to treat more serious discomfort or pain.
  • Saline nasal sprays. Over-the-counter salt water-based nasal sprays help loosen up mucus to relieve a stuffy nose
  • Cough syrups and cold medicines. OTC cough syrups and cold medicines are intended to reduce the symptoms of a cough and cold, but some research has shown that they do not work any better than placebos to treat the common cold. Follow dosing directions carefully to avoid accidental overdose.

Vitamins and supplements

  • Zinc. Some studies show that zinc supplements can shorten the length of a cold, especially if taken within the first 24 to 48 hours of signs and symptoms
  • Vitamin C. Most studies have confirmed that Vitamin C supplements do not help prevent colds, but some research suggests they could shorten the length of cold symptoms if taken before symptoms begin
  • Echinacea. Studies on the efficacy of echinacea supplements for the common cold are mixed

How is the common cold treated in children?

In children, the common cold usually does not require a doctor's visit and resolves independently. However, the following common cold treatments for children can be used to help alleviate symptoms and reduce discomfort:

  • Provide added fluids. Children older than 3 months can drink an electrolyte solution like Pedialyte to prevent dehydration.
  • Clear excess nasal mucus. You can use an infant aspirator to draw out mucus from your baby's nose.
  • Moisturize the nasal passages. Using a sale nasal gel or spray in your baby's nose can help reduce the risk of inflammation from aspirator use.
  • Treat pain and fever. Over-the-counter medicines are not recommended for children younger than 2, as serious and even fatal side effects may occur.
  • Elevate the head. Using extra pillows to prop up your child in bed can help relieve congestion
  • Reduce chapping. Petroleum jelly or Aquaphor can be applied under the nose to reduce chapping and redness
  • Soothe a sore throat. 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of honey can be given to children over age 1 to help alleviate a sore or scratchy throat

Contact a pediatrician if symptoms worsen, do not improve, or are severe. Call 911 if your child is breathing quickly or has trouble breathing.



The common cold typically lasts a week to 10 days, though it can take up to two weeks for lingering symptoms to resolve. Contact a primary care specialist if a cold lasts longer than two weeks.

The common cold can be contagious for up to two weeks, but people are most contagious during the first two to four days of symptoms—when they're usually most bothersome.

There is no cure for the common cold, but it typically resolves on its own within a week to 10 days. Over-the-counter medicines, getting lots of rest, having plenty of fluids, and using at-home remedies like cough drops can help alleviate symptoms.

More than 200 viruses can cause the common cold, including rhinoviruses, coronaviruses, respiratory syncytial viruses (RSV), parainfluenza viruses, adenoviruses, and enteroviruses. Most cause mild symptoms that do not require medical attention.

Cold viruses can spread easily in crowded settings like schools, offices, and other workplaces, day cares, as well as within the home. Transmission can occur via person-to-person contact, airborne transmission, and contaminated surfaces.

Cold viruses can enter your body through the eyes, nose, or mouth. You can catch the common cold by breathing in air droplets that someone emits via coughing or sneezing, touching something that has been contaminated by someone's germs, or directly from human contact such as hugging or kissing.

Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Common Cold Treatment

If you or your child is suffering from unusual, severe, worsening, or persisting cold symptoms, or you're unsure if something else is causing symptoms, schedule an appointment with the experts at NewYork-Presbyterian.

We offer both in-person and video visits, and same-day appointments can be made for urgent or critical needs. To provide our patients with added flexibility, we offer early, late, and weekend appointments, and an online portal is available for any follow-up questions or concerns.

NewYork-Presbyterian accepts most insurance and can provide referrals to specialists within the NewYork-Presbyterian network.