What Cold Remedies Really Work?

A couple weeks ago, in The Common Cold:  Your Questions Answeredwe looked at some of the lesser-known (but widely-wondered) aspects of that pesky triad of runny nose, sore throat and sneezing (etc.).  Now let’s dig in to the burning question:

What remedies really work to cure the common cold?

Well, the bad news is no medication or remedy cures the common cold. And unfortunately, there are no prospects on the horizon.  But the good news is there are options that help minimize symptoms and give relief while the virus runs its course:

For the full gamut of symptoms:  Rest and fluids are the mainstay of cold remedies.  Rest helps boost the immune system and your body’s ability to fight off the virus.  Fluids (water, hot tea, broth, etc.) help thin nasal and throat secretions, making them easier to expel.  The cool mist from a humidifier can also do the same (steam has not been shown to be effective, but a warm shower may still give relief.)  A caveat:  avoid caffeine, alcohol, and coffee as they can dehydrate the system.  Does that mean a categorical “no” to the hot toddy?  No, but consume rarely. (And be sure to drink plenty of the other fluids mentioned above and never, ever mix alcohol with acetominophen, aka Tylenol***).

For sore throat:  A warm salt water gargle (1/4 to 1/2 tsp. salt in 8 ounces of water), lozenges, and throat sprays work well for older children and adults.  But these can be a choking hazard, so don’t use in children younger than age five.

For nasal congestion:  Try saline (salt water) drops and bulb suctioning for infants; for older kids and adults try saline nasal sprays.  However, while nasal sprays with the ingredient oxymetazoline (Afrin, for example), work great at first…by causing blood vessels in the nose to constrict and relieve nasal congestion…they come with some serious side effects, including “rebound” congestion if used for more than two days.

For headache, body aches, fever:  The old standbys acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, etc.) are inexpensive and effective.  Remember though, acetaminophen is approved for use in infants under 6 months, but ibuprofen is not.  Stick with acetaminophen in this age group.  And avoid aspirin in children…it can cause a serious illness called Reye’s Syndrome.  Adults may take any of the above as directed as long as they have no medical conditions, allergies or drug interactions that would prevent them from doing so.***

What doesn’t work.

Antibiotics.  Antibiotics combat bacterial infections, and are ineffective against the viruses that cause the common cold.  That said, if your cold symptoms worsen instead of improve after several days, you may be developing a bacterial infection.  In this case, seek medical attention and talk antibiotics with your healthcare provider.

Over-the-counter remedies (OTC’s).  This is a surprise for most of us.  We’re talking nasal decongestants, cough suppressants, etc.  I read a journal article years ago that described a study of common “OTC’s” and whether they actually worked to relieve cold symptoms.  (Unfortunately, I no longer have the article in hand so please trust me on this one.)  In short, the results of this study showed that these remedies are overall not clinically effective, meaning the study’s researchers actually measured, for example, the amount of nasal goo cold sufferers had both before and after taking certain OTC’s.  (Can I get an eewww?).  And the result?  No difference in the flow of snotty secretions.  However, these same patients still felt better after taking OTC’s than they did without them.  The researchers concluded that this apparent placebo effect counted for something, especially if there were no adverse side effects and the subjects could carry on with parenting, work and activities-of-daily living.  So while OTC’s may not make much difference in measurable symptoms, they can help us feel better.  However (there’s always a “however”:)), refrain from using OTC’s in children six years old and younger, as many are not approved in this age group and can cause serious side effects.

What remedies are “iffy.”

Echinacea.  It may help, it may not.  If taken at the first hint of symptoms, echinacea may decrease the length of a cold and the nastiness of cold symptoms.  It may be ok for kids to take as long as they are not allergic to it…but echinacea can cause a rash in kids anyway.  As with any medication  drug interactions are a concern, so ask your healthcare provider before using.

Vitamin C.  Long touted as the supplement to take for fending off the common cold, this antioxidant really doesn’t help, according to a 2007 study. In fact, the fluids that contain vitamin C (orange juice, Emergen-C) are what help relieve symptoms, not the vitamin C itself. However, taking vitamin C before symptoms start may be of some benefit.

Zinc.  Like echinacea, zinc may help, but it may not; it’s possible echinacea decreases the duration of colds in adults by a day or two if taken at the first sniffle but it doesn’t have the same results in children.  It may lower the number of yearly colds one can suffer if taken regularly.  However, zinc can have some serious side effects.

As always, with any OTC, supplement, etc., consult with your healthcare provider before using.

[***Taking acetominophen-containing medications like Tylenol with even a moderate amount of alcohol can increase the risk of liver damage, and possibly increase the risk of kidney damage.]


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  • This may sounds strange, but I have found that if I don’t use other people pens, I don’t get sick very often. I also wash my hands a lot.

    • No, not strange at all! Cold prevention really comes down to the “chicken soup” basics.

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