Millions of Americans get a cold every year, with most people getting two or three colds annually. What we refer to as “the common cold” is usually one of 200 strains of rhinoviruses.

Since colds are caused by a virus for which there’s no cure, there’s no easy fix to prevent them from happening or make them go away.

But over-the-counter (OTC) medications can ease your symptoms and lessen the impact the cold has on your day-to-day activities. Since most cold medications treat more than one symptom, it can be helpful to identify your most severe symptom and make your choice based on lessening that symptom.

Be careful not to take two medications that contain the same active ingredients. If you double up, you can get too much of the drug in your system. This can lead to more side effects, up your chance for overdose, or other serious health problems. Always read labels carefully for expiration dates and side effects.

This article will help you choose a cold medicine based on your symptoms.

SymptomDrug name
Sinus headacheibuprofen, naproxen
Runny nosediphenhydramine
Stuffy nosepseudoephedrine, phenylephrine
Fever and achesibuprofen, naproxen, acetaminophen
Sore throat and coughingdextromethorphan
Nighttime diphenhydramine, doxylamine
For children acetaminophen

When symptoms of congestion hit your sinuses, you can feel cranial pressure and “stuffed up” in your nasal passages. This sinus headache is typically the main symptom people associate with a “head cold.”

To treat a sinus headache, decide if you’d like to treat the pain from your sinus blockage or the actual blockage itself. Ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) can reduce your pain.

A decongestant like pseudoephedrine can thin out your congestion, but it might take a few doses before your sinus pressure goes away.

A runny nose is one of the ways your body ejects irritants inflaming your nasal passages. A runny nose can also be inconvenient and feel a little bit gross.

If you take a decongestant for a runny nose, your symptoms will get worse before they get better as those types of drugs thin the mucus in your body.

That’s why diphenhydramine might be better for drying up a runny nose. Diphenhydramine is an antihistamine, which means it reduces your body’s natural reaction to irritants and pathogens. It also might make you drowsy, which is why it’s best to take this medication at bedtime.

A stuffy nose can leave you feeling like you’re struggling to take in fresh air. It can also linger in your sinuses even after other symptoms fade.

To loosen up a stuffy nose, take a decongestant with the active ingredient pseudoephedrine. It thins out the mucus that your body produces, allowing it to escape your inflamed nasal passages so you can breathe easy again.

Phenylephrine is another decongestant available for stuffy nose.

Fever and aches are triggered by inflammation in your body. Treating the inflammation can bring down your pain levels and soothe discomfort.

Fever and aches are best treated by ibuprofen. Ibuprofen is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), as is naproxen. Acetaminophen is another pain reliever that can treat fever and aches.

If your coughing is making your throat sore, look for a medication that contains dextromethorphan. Dextromethorphan helps control your brain’s signal to your body that you need to cough. This can decrease your coughing symptoms enough to promote healing of a sore throat, but it doesn’t treat the cause of your coughing.

Some medications that contain dextromethorphan also contain an ingredient called guaifenesin. This ingredient thins out mucus and helps your cough to be “productive,” meaning that you’re coughing out thick congestion that could be aggravating your throat and chest.

Antihistamines can repress coughing and also make you feel sleepy. Drugs that contain the antihistamines doxylamine or diphenhydramine might help you sleep easier when you have a cold.

Toddlers and infants have different safety concerns when it comes to choosing a medication. Generally, you should consult with your child’s pediatrician before giving them any cold medication.

Your child’s weight, development, age, and symptom severity help to determine the medication and dosage.

If your child is younger than 6 months, stick to acetaminophen for pain relief. Congestion, coughing, sore throat, and other symptoms can be dealt with using home remedies. Overuse of cough and cold medicine in children can have serious side effects.

Child-safe OTC versions of ibuprofen, antihistamines, and cough suppressants are available for children age 2 and older. Toddlers older than 1 year can also use pasteurized honey as a cough suppressant.

Decongestants can be dangerous for people who have high blood pressure. The Mayo Clinic recommends you avoid the following active ingredients:

  • pseudoephedrine
  • ephedrine
  • phenylephrine
  • naphazoline
  • oxymetazoline

Instead, take an expectorant, such as dextromethorphan, and look for OTC drugs that are manufactured for people with high blood pressure in mind.

Follow dosing instructions carefully and speak with a doctor if you’re unsure about how cold medications might interfere with your blood pressure medication.

Finally, try pain relievers like aspirin or acetaminophen, and use home remedies to relieve lingering symptoms.

Try these home remedies to soothe cold symptoms:

Get plenty of rest

Rest is one of the most important things you can give your body when you’re dealing with a cold.

Hydrate your body

Staying hydrated with water, juice, or herbal tea helps thin out mucus, combats congestion, and helps your body fight a cold virus.

Inhale steam from a shower or bowl of hot water

Inhaling steam can gently loosen congestion and help you breathe more easily.

Use a humidifier

Using a humidifier in the room where you sleep can help clear nasal passages.

Zinc supplements

Zinc supplements have been demonstrated to help your immune system and may decrease how long your cold lasts.


Honey is soothing for your throat and may help decrease coughing.


Garlic has antiseptic and antimicrobial properties that may support immune function. Garlic supplements, gargling with garlic, or even eating raw garlic might speed your recovery.

Antibiotics don’t work to treat the common cold. Antibiotics only work to treat bacterial infections, while colds are typically caused by a virus.

If you develop a secondary infection caused by bacteria, you’ll need to speak with a doctor about different treatment options.

Choose a cold medication based on the symptoms that impact you the most. If you need to be at work or alert during the day, don’t take an antihistamine decongestant until the evening.

Remember to always read dosing guidelines, and don’t double up on medications that contain the same active ingredient.

A cold can take 7 to 10 days to resolve. If you’re still feeling sick after that, or if your symptoms start to worsen, see a doctor.