Your Health

The Common Cold

What is the common cold?

The common cold is a contagious viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. Colds are not caused by the same viruses that cause influenza (the flu).

What are the symptoms?

The first symptom of a cold is usually a sore throat that may feel dry or scratchy. This is usually followed by a runny or plugged nose and a cough. Symptoms usually peak on day two or three and typically last five to seven days. Children’s colds usually last slightly longer. Although it is fairly rare, some colds include a low-grade fever.

How can I avoid colds?

Cold viruses typically spread through the air (by coughing and sneezing) or through physical contact (by touching). You may be able to avoid getting (and spreading) colds by washing your hands often and avoiding crowded areas. You do not have more chance of getting a cold as a result of drafts, cold weather, or going outside with wet hair.

How can I treat colds?

There is no cure for the common cold. Antibiotics do not relieve or cure colds. If you catch a cold, however, you can treat the symptoms while your body fights off the virus.

Non-medication treatments

The most basic part of treating your cold is to take good care of yourself — get plenty of sleep, stay comfortable, and drink lots of fluids (for example, hot drinks such as tea with lemon and honey).

The following table describes some treatments for specific symptoms.

Symptom Treatment
sore throat Try gargling with salt water to relieve the pain. (Mix about a teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water.) You can also keep your throat moist by breathing in steam or sucking on a lozenge or hard candy.
runny or plugged nose Try clearing your nasal passages with a saline nasal spray, available from your Peoples Drug Mart or Peoples Pharmacy.
cough If you have a lot of phlegm (mucus in your chest), try decreasing its thickness by increasing your fluid intake or using a humidifier or steamer to increase the humidity in your room.
fever A fever can dehydrate you. Try to keep your room cool and wear light or little clothing so you don’t sweat excessively. Take a lukewarm bath and drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated.


Non-prescription products

Peoples Drug Mart offers many products that may help relieve your cold symptoms. Don’t expect to get rid of all your symptoms. Instead, try to find a product that will ease your worst symptoms. Each product may have possible side effects, so it is important to read the product instructions and talk to your Peoples pharmacist before you use any non-prescription product.


Acetaminophen may provide relief for pain, sore throats, and fevers. Talk to your Peoples pharmacist about the appropriate dosages for your family members.

Decongestant sprays and drops

Decongestant sprays and drops such as xylometazoline may help relieve stuffed-up noses. They should be used as directed and are best limited to three days of continuous use. If you don’t like nasal spray or drops, try using oral decongestants.

Oral decongestants

Oral decongestants such as pseudoephedrine may be useful for stuffed-noses when sprays or drops are ineffective or cannot be tolerated. Oral decongestants take about 30 minutes to work because your body must first absorb them. Do not use oral decongestants if you have high blood pressure or diabetes.


Expectorants such as guaifenesin may help relieve wet, “productive” coughs with phlegm caused by chest congestion.

Cough suppressants

Cough suppressants such as dextromethorphan, or DM, may help you get a good night’s sleep by relieving dry, hacking coughs that can interfere with your sleep or daily activities. A dry, hacking cough is a cough that does not produce mucus.

Zinc gluconate lozenges

Zinc gluconate lozenges may help shorten the duration of a cold. The lozenges should be sucked approximately every two hours while you are awake. Do not give zinc gluconate lozenges to children under five because they may present a choking hazard.


Echinacea is an herb that is used extensively in Europe and is gaining popularity in North America. The recommended dosage depends on the product and is usually listed on the package. Echinacea may shorten the duration of a cold by one or two days and also reduce the severity of the cold symptoms.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C may help reduce the severity and duration of an existing cold when taken at daily doses of 1000 to 6000 mg. Vitamin C is not proven to help prevent colds.

Combination products

Combination products can be useful for treating multiple symptoms. Your Peoples pharmacist can help you choose the right product for your specific symptoms.

Treating children

There has not been much research into the effectiveness of oral cold and cough remedies for children under the age of six. Ask your Peoples pharmacist which products are safest and best for young children. A product that only has one active ingredient may be the best option. Do not hesitate to call a health care professional if you are concerned about your child and need medical advice.

What if I am pregnant or breast-feeding?

If you are pregnant or breast-feeding, talk to your Peoples pharmacist or doctor before taking any medication, including non-prescription products.

What if I do not get better?

Talk to your doctor if you are concerned that you seem to be much sicker than a common cold would make you or if you have:

  • symptoms that do not improve after one week
  • a fever of more than 39ºC (102ºF) for more than one day
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • a severe sore throat or an earache

Where can I find out more about colds?

For more information about your medications or other health issues:

  • talk to your Peoples pharmacist
  • read People First, a health magazine of practical information available free from your neighbourhood Peoples Drug Mart or Peoples Pharmacy

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