There are three options when you have a cold.
(1) Do nothing. I have done this in the past, in the "you're just treating the symptoms" mindset. I don't do that anymore. It probably won't harm you unless you are predisposed to secondary infections, or you decide to garnish it with things like going running in the cold. But if you've got a mild sniffle, time to rest, and like drinking tea, it's not a terrible idea.
(2) Do a bit. Probably what most people do, really. A combination of personal preference, need, and what you know about and can physically take.
(3) Hit it with everything that the pharmaceutical industry can throw at it. This is my way. It will not cure a cold, nor reduce the time you have it. But it makes me feel a lot better while I have it, and may reduce complications.
Obviously as an unqualified random person on the internet, I would never give medical advice to strangers, but I see nothing wrong in telling you what makes me feel better. What I do was worked out over a number of years and various references, but in fact has ended up as pretty much what the people at http://www.commoncold.org/treatment.htm recommend. In fact, what follows is pretty much the annotated version of their method, which is also similar to that at http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/common-cold-centre/the-common-cold/medication
Treatment part 1, pharmaceutical
(1) Begin treatment at the earliest sign of a cold. You want to stop the inflammation before it gets going, and reduce the amount of gunk that you are getting in your sinuses/ears.
Take a first generation antihistamine. UK residents can buy chlorpheniramine maleate from Boots. If you're taking pseudoephedrine as well, Actifed is a good combination antihistamine (NB modern non-drowsy ones don't help a cold, so if you have to take those anyway, it won't help you).
Also, at the same time, take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen or naproxen. I go for ibuprofen and don't stint it. Paracetamol is OK if you can't take NSAIDs, but it won't help the inflammation, and you want to do that. However if you have a headache it can be worth adding some in as it can be taken at the same time as NSAIDs. Unlike my devil-may-care attitude to ibuprofen dosage, here paying attention to the max dosage does matter.
Continue with the antihistamine and NSAID as necessary until cold symptoms clear (3-7 days).
If you still feel rubbish, add an oral decongestant, specifically pseudoephedrine, if you're still getting tons of snot. Pseudoephedrine doesn't agree with everyone, but personally I love it even though I can't take it after 6pm if I don't want insomnia. It has raised me from wishing I were dead to a cheerful presence at several weddings and been the salvation of a number of holidays. In some countries it is harder to get hold of, but it is worth seeking out. The most common alternative, phenylephedrine, has little if any evidence of effectiveness and increasing studies showing it is no better than placebo. If, like me, your colds are of significant duration and you are addressing painful sinus symptoms then you should generally pick an oral decongestant over a nasal spray in order to avoid rebound congestion. However nasal sprays are fast acting and effective if it is just a nose issue. Try oxymetazoline.
Happily for me, I don't get much by way of coughs, so I can't comment on cough suppressants.
Treatment part 2, lifestyle
The most important sleep tip for those of us with rubbish noses is definitely nasal strips. That is, those plasters you sometimes see sportspeople wearing across the nose. They aren't cheap, but in my experience they make a real difference to being able to breathe even a little bit through your nose while asleep. The BreatheRight version are even less cheap than generics, but the glue is better.
Woken up with a cold and a pounding headache and desire to stab your forehead with a fork? Welcome to the world of sinus congestion. Have a biscuit, take some ibuprofen, force yourself to sit up, and have a hot shower as soon as you can. Let gravity relieve the bits of your head that the gunk is sitting on. Conversely, at the other end of the day lie down for a bit.
Inhaling hot water vapour doesn't really do anything beyond sometimes help you feel better for five minutes. But sometimes that is worth it. Those of you who like hot drinks, drink them. The caffeine probably helps, too.
Vicks and smelling salts do nothing but smell nice, but they can make you feel like you can breath better even when you can't physically. Also, inviting people to smell smelling salts and watching their reaction is very entertaining. Not that I would advocate this, of course.
Alcohol. In theory not a great idea, in practice it's up to how you feel. If I'm at a formal occasion and I have a cold I will usually drink and in my experience I feel none the worse for it long term and decidedly more cheerful short term! I know that I can safely drink on all the above medication, YMMV.
Best of all, avoid the cold in the first place. If you find out how to do that, let me know.
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