How to Treat Colds at Any Age

December 14, 2017 Lina Wong, MD


Make the coughing, sneezing and fever more bearable with remedies geared towards ages 1 to 100.

You've tried your best to have your family follow all the cold prevention tips--you've encouraged proper hand washing, built up everyone's immune system, even cleaned all the germ hot spots in your house--but one (or more) of you still caught a cold. You generally have to let the cold run its course, but it doesn't mean you or your loved ones have to be miserable until it's gone.

Here's a guide to cold treatment tips for people of all ages:

Infants (Younger than 1 Year)

Infants three months old or younger with cold symptoms need to be checked by their pediatrician. “And If there is a fever, infants that young need to be seen in the ER because they don’t localize infections well,” says Maureen Villasenor, MD, a pediatrician with St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group.

  • It can be common for babies ages six months to one year to get a fever at the start of a cold, so they can take something to control it—Tylenol for infants younger than six months, or Tylenol or Motrin for older babies. “Always check the dosage with your pediatrician,” Villasenor says.
  • A stuffy baby will feel better held upright compared to lying flat on her back. Don’t use pillows to prop baby up, though, as that can be unsafe.
  • A cool-mist humidifier can help loosen congestion and is fine to use for babies (as well as children and adults). The humidifier should be cleaned between uses to prevent bacteria or mold from forming.
  • Infants with stuffy noses can get relief with nasal suction. “Put three to four saline drops in each nostril if the child isn’t too fussy,” Villasenor says. “You can use a bulb syringe, where you squeeze to pull out the secretion, and there are electric suction machines as well. There is also the Snot Sucker, where you put one end in baby’s nose and the other in your mouth and you suck the secretion out. For kids who are nursing and can’t breathe well because of a cold, nasal suction is key.”


  • Over-the-counter cold medications are not safe for young children, Villasenor says. “I’m cautious about any medication under the age of six, especially under two, when there’s a greater chance of overdose. Kids have variances in their drug metabolism.”
  • Natural alternatives to medication should also be used with care. “Check with your pediatrician on these,” Villasenor says. “Generally the bigger brands are safer because they have their own checks and balances, but natural treatments aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration the same way medicine is. You can’t guarantee what’s in the bottle or box is not contaminated.”
  • Starting at age six, kids can feel better with a vapor rub on their chest, especially before bedtime. “Most kids are distracted in the daytime, but at nighttime they can’t sleep, and if they have a fever, it tends to run higher at night,” Villasenor says.
  • By age two, kids don’t need nasal suction—they’re old enough to tell you when they are stuffed up and can blow their nose with a little help from you. Older kids can use saline sprays to help loosen secretions.
  • Hydration is key so kids’ congestion can thin out, Villasenor says. “Any clear fluid is great, but drinking something is better than nothing, so give milk if you want. Warm fluids also loosen the secretions, so offer chicken soup or warm herbal teas. For little kids, I recommend ice pops--they hydrate and help with sore throat pain. If you don’t want to do regular ice pops, try Pedialyte Popsicles.”
  • Villasenor does not recommend using essential oils for cold relief. “A few case reports have shown they can cause problems in kids; when the oils are released in the air, they can trigger asthma.”
  • Honey is effective at controlling symptoms and reducing coughs. “A lot of kids don’t take honey on its own, so put some in warm lemon water or try honey lollipops,” Villasenor says.
  • At the first sign of a cold, give your child vitamin C. “Some studies have shown vitamin C can decrease the duration of a cold if taken early,” Villasenor says.
  • “With little kids, I err on the side of caution and tell parents they can bring them in at the beginning of a cold, as they may be more likely to get an ear infection,” Villasenor says. “For older healthy kids, have them try to ride it out as long as they are well-appearing. Symptoms peak around day three or four, and at the end of one week the cold should resolve itself. If that varies, or you are concerned something is out of ordinary or your child has asthma, check in with your pediatrician.”


  • Once kids are older than 12, you can try giving them over-the-counter cough and cold medications. “A lot of medications are trying to treat six different symptoms but if you give your kid Tylenol and a cold medication with Tylenol there's a risk of overdose," Dr. Villasenor cautions. Treat one symptom at a time, usually the worst one.
  • Teens can use many cold relief treatments geared toward children (a lot of fluids, vapor rub, cold-mist humidifiers, etc.) But for teens, rest is huge, Villasenor says. “One of the main things I see with my teen patients is they say they’re going to school every day. They don’t take one day to let the body rest and recuperate. How will the body get better if they can’t concentrate on their health?”


  • You’re old enough to use cold medicine, but follow label directions carefully. Prolonged use generally isn’t recommended, so see a doctor if you find your symptoms aren’t improving after three days on medication.
  • If you take any prescription medication, double check with your doctor on what cold medications would be safe to use.
  • Adults can use nasal sprays as well as cough drops to help clear up congestion.
  • Like teens, it can be hard for adults to rest, but it’s crucial to help rebound from a cold. It’s also important to stay in bed if you are taking medication that makes you drowsy—no driving in to work.
  • A ¼ teaspoon of salt in warm water can soothe a raw throat.
  • Fluids are good, but not if they are coffee or other caffeinated beverages. Those can actually make you more dehydrated.


  • As you age, you need to be vigilant about cold symptoms. “Our immune system doesn't respond as quickly or effectively as when we were younger. This means we are more vulnerable to viruses or bacteria in the environment,” says Victoria Leigh, DO, who is board-certified in internal medicine and affiliated with St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group. “Colds can progress to sinusitis, ear infection and pneumonia if the body is not strong enough to fight the virus. Additionally, most of our older patients have multiple medical conditions, so when they catch colds it is usually not just one system—lungs, for example—that can potentially be affected.” Keep an eye out for symptoms that would necessitate a doctor’s visit: a fever above 100.4 F that occurs after a few days into the cold; a worsening ability to breathe with shortness of breath or chest pain; and any symptom such as sinus drainage, sore throat or coughing that is not improving after three to five days.
  • “Support your immune system by getting enough sleep and hydration—unless you have been told to restrict fluids because of kidney and/or heart failure—eat a whole-food diet and minimize processed carbohydrates,” Leigh says.
  • Supplemental treatments recommended by the American Academy of Family Practitioners include zinc (the label should say either zinc acetate or zinc gluconate) during the symptomatic period only and vitamin C as a preventive measure during the cold and flu season. “Note that vitamin C does not reduce the number of colds per year, but does shorten the duration of symptoms, and high doses of vitamin C may cause diarrhea,” Leigh says.

​When in doubt, see your doctor. “If you have any worsening symptoms or would like personalized recommendations, I always suggest trying to see your primary care physician, who will review your pertinent medical history and risk factors,” Leigh says. "We would much rather our patients be on the safe side and reach out sooner for customized advice based on their history.”

Are you looking for a primary care physician or pediatrician for your family? Find a doctor in your area.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


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