The common cold is one of the most common infectious diseases in humans. Adults will average roughly 2-3 colds a year, and children are prone to even more. You know the drill- a sore throat comes on for a few days, accompanied by fatigue, potentially even a low-grade fever. Then arrives the congestion, coughing, and general feeling of blah. Heading to the local drugstore may feel like the solution is within reach. But, not all over-the-counter medications help relieve symptoms, and may actually be harmful. There is no cure for the common cold, so antibiotics won’t help, but treating the symptoms will bring relief. Here are a few methods that have been proven to relieve cold symptoms:
Analgesics, otherwise known as pain relievers, are one of the most effective methods of combating cold symptoms. Some options include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (brand names Advil, Nuprin, Motrin), naproxen (brand names Aleve, Naprosyn), or prescription Cox-2 inhibitors (brand name Celebrex). NSAIDs are commonly used to reduce pain, inflammation, and reduce fevers. Use caution if you have any history of indigestion like GERD or gastrointestinal issues. And never use if you’re pregnant or on a blood thinning agent. Tylenol (acetaminophen), also helps reduce fevers and ward away body aches, but does not have an anti-inflammatory effect. Check with your provider which option may be best for you.
Since the mid 1980s, studies have explored whether zinc has an impact on the common cold. Recent studies showed that zinc lozenges or syrup reduced the length of a cold by one day, especially when taken within 24 hours of the first signs and symptoms of a cold. Both zinc and vitamin C are essential for production of infection-fighting neutrophils which help prevent infections.
Most colds are caused by a type of virus called rhinovirus, which thrives and multiplies in the nasal passages and throat (upper respiratory system). Zinc may work by preventing the rhinovirus from multiplying. It may also stop the rhinovirus from lodging in the mucous membranes of the throat and nose. Zinc in lozenge or syrup form appears to be more effective as it stays in the throat, keeping it in contact with the virus. It is recommended that people stay away from nasal sprays, as a side effect may be loss of smell. High amounts of zinc are toxic and can cause copper deficiency, anemia and damage to the nervous system, so speak to your provider about dosage and if zinc is an option for you- and stick to the recommended dosage amounts.
Nasal Decongestants (With/Without Antihistamines)
Once the congestion hits, it can feel like you’re overwhelmed with stuffiness and surrounded by tissues. Over-the-counter decongestants containing pseudoephedrine can help dry and clear nasal passages, but only temporarily. Pseudoephedrine may increase blood pressure and heart rate. Do not take it without first checking with a doctor if you have heart disease, high blood pressure, prostate problems, diabetes, or thyroid problems.
Decongestants are only meant to be used short term, twice a day at most. Long-term use can actually cause a boomerang effect and cause the very symptoms you’re trying to reduce.
Baths can help relieve tension, body aches, and congestion. When you are suffering from a cold, you can try a detox bath by adding epsom salts, essential oils like eucalyptus, and ginger to the bath. Adding epsom salt to a bath raises magnesium levels in the body, which may help the body dispose of lactic acid. That, in combination with the warm water, helps relieve body aches, soreness, and relaxes the muscles. The vapor from a bath can also help relieve congestion and coughing much like using a humidifier.
Humidifiers add moisture to the air, and are one of the most effective tools when fighting a cold. Cool mist humidifiers help relieve coughing and congestion, but make sure that you routinely clean the humidifier to avoid mineral buildup, mold, and bacteria. Rinse the tank with a vinegar solution several times a week, and with a bleach solution monthly (if you’re using the humidifier long-term like during the dry winter months). If you find yourself in a pinch and are caught with a cold and no humidifier on hand, you can also take a warm shower (or bath) to relieve symptoms. Warm mist humidifiers or steam humidifiers aren’t recommended mainly due to the burn risk, especially for children.
Your body benefits from keeping hydrated when you’re moving though the phases of a cold. Water, juice, clear broth or warm lemon water with honey helps loosen congestion and prevents dehydration. Avoid alcohol and caffeinated sodas, which can make dehydration worse.
Along with liquids, rest is the single biggest factor that will impact your recovery from a cold. Although it is easier said than done, take every chance to give your body some downtime. Let the chores wait for when you’ve recovered. Reschedule appointments and commitments. Your body needs the chance to recover as it fights off the virus and over exerting yourself will only prolong and exacerbate symptoms.
How To Help Kids With Colds
Some cold fighting methods are not safe for kids, and it is best to speak to your provider about what is best considering the child’s age and health. Generally speaking, the only established safe and effective treatments for children are:
- Nasal saline irrigation
- Humidifiers to relieve cough/congestion
- Intranasal ipratropium sprays (children age 5 and older)
- Topical ointments containing camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oils (children age 2 and over)
- Honey (children one year and older)
Over-the-counter cold medications should not be used in children younger than four years.
Hand hygiene is the best way for people to avoid transmission of cold viruses. Regularly washing hands with soap and water will help prevent viruses (not just colds!) from spreading on surfaces and from being passed along from person to person during the normal routine of the day. Use a alcohol-based hand sanitizer when washing your hands isn’t an option. Maintain a routine of cleaning high traffic surfaces (like keyboards, doorknobs, cellphones, steering wheels, etc). Remember to cover your mouth when you’re coughing and sneezing. And, to help recovery and prevent illnesses from spreading, people that are sick should avoid contact with others- stay home from work, school, and other commitments.
If symptoms worsen or persist, see your healthcare provider