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Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza) Treatment: Medicine


The treatment and management of colds and influenza mainly involves alleviating your symptoms, though they ordinarily resolve on their own. If you have a chronic health condition, a cold or influenza can worsen whatever condition you have, particularly diabetes and chronic heart and lung diseases. Occasionally, viral upper respiratory infections develop into complications like ear or sinus infections or pneumonia.

The goals of treatment are threefold:

  • Make yourself comfortable while the illness runs its course.
  • Manage other conditions so they do not worsen during upper respiratory infection.
  • Prevent complications from developing.

Only influenza can be specifically treated with (and possibly prevented by) antiviral medication, and those medications should be used only in serious cases because they may have unwanted side effects. Most people with the flu do not need antiviral medicine. If you have the flu, check with your doctor to see if you need antiviral medicine. You will need it if you are in a high-risk group or if you have a severe illness (like breathing problems).

Many over-the-counter (OTC) remedies are available to help minimize your symptoms. OTC remedies are more helpful for flu than cold. In fact, none of the over-the-counter treatments have been found to shorten the duration of a cold or even provide significant temporary relief. Cough syrup, in fact, seems to be no better than a placebo.111-112 Some of the natural treatments may be able to do better. Using zinc in topical form (such as zinc lozenges or nasal sprays or gels) is one example; zinc has known antiviral effects.

For information on how to prevent yourself from catching the cold and flu, including getting the flu vaccine, click here.

##A Note on Antibiotics:

People often want to take antibiotics for colds, and many physicians will prescribe them—even though antibiotics have no effect on viruses, which cause cold and flu. Many believe that when the mucus turns yellow, it means that a bacterial infection has occurred for which antibiotic treatment is indicated. However, viruses can also produce yellow mucus and even if bacteria have made a home in the excess mucus, they may be only innocent bystanders and produce no symptoms. In general, uncomplicated influenza and the common cold should not be treated with antibiotics for several reasons:

  • Antibiotics, though generally safe, have side effects and are not as harmless as the common cold.
  • Antibiotics do not cure influenza or the common cold since both are caused by viruses; they only work against bacterial infections.
  • Misuse and overuse of antibiotics has caused a worldwide crisis—the emergence of resistant bacteria. Some infections are now resistant to every known antibiotic.

Some colds can be complicated by bacterial infections. In such cases, antibiotic treatment may be indicated.


Effect of Antiviral Medications on Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)

Antiviral medications help treat the flu by inhibiting various functions of the viruses that cause it.

Read more about Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza) and Antiviral Medications.

Effect of Over-the-counter Medications on Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)

OTCs do not cure the cold or flu, but they work through various mechanisms to reduce the symptoms associated with these conditions, helping you be a lot more comfortable as your infection runs its...

Read more about Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza) and Over-the-counter Medications.

Effect of Zinc on Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza)

When you take zinc as a lozenge or nasal gel or spray, you are not using it as a nutrient. Instead, certain forms of zinc release ions that are thought to directly inhibit viruses in the nose and...

Read more about Viral Upper Respiratory Infections (Colds and Influenza) and Zinc Lozenges and Nasal Sprays and Gels.


  1. Paul IM, Yoder KE, Crowell KR, et al. Effect of dextromethorphan, diphenhydramine, and placebo on nocturnal cough and sleep quality for coughing children and their parents. Pediatrics. 2004;114:85-90.
  2. Schroeder K, Fahey T. Over-the-counter medications for acute cough in children and adults in ambulatory settings. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2001;CD001831.