There is no cure for the common cold. The most important thing you can do is drink a lot of fluids to keep your body hydrated. This will help prevent another infection from setting in. Avoid drinks like coffee, tea, and colas with caffeine. They may rob your system of fluids. As for eating, follow your appetite. If you're not really hungry, try eating simple foods like white rice or broth.
Chicken soup is comforting, plus the steam helps break up nasal congestion. Ginger seems to settle an upset stomach. A hot toddy may help you sleep, but beware of mixing alcohol with other cold remedies.
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Over-the-counter cold medicines can offer relief from aches and fever. However, doctors no longer believe in suppressing low-grade fever except in very young and very old people, or people with certain medical conditions such as heart or lung disease. Low-grade fever helps the body fight off infection by suppressing the growth of viruses or bacteria and by activating the immune system.
Aspirin. Young people and children should not take aspirin because of the risk of Reye's syndrome.
Decongestants can help make breathing easier by shrinking swollen mucous membranes in the nose. Use for no more than two or three days.
Saline nasal sprays can also open breathing passages and may be used freely.
Cough preparations are not hugely effective. For minor coughs, water and fruit juices probably help the most. The FDA and manufacturers now say that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines should not be given to children under age 4.
Gargling with salt water can help relieve a sore throat.
How effective are natural remedies like zinc, echinacea, and vitamin C?
Taking zinc, either as a syrup or lozenge, through the first few days of a cold may shorten the misery of an upper respiratory infection, according to a review of 15 studies on the subject. The review also found that zinc also appeared to prevent colds in people who used it over the course of about five months.
Some studies show that zinc nasal sprays help cut a cold's severity and duration. The theory? Zinc sprays may coat the cold virus and prevent it from attaching to nasal cells where they enter the body. But other studies show that zinc is no more effective than placebo. Recent, well-done studies on echinacea show that it is not effective in preventing colds. However, in one study, 120 people with cold-like symptoms took 20 drops of echinacea every two hours for 10 days and had briefer colds than others.
As for vitamin C's effects, a recent survey of 65 years' worth of studies found limited benefit. The researchers found no evidence that vitamin C prevents colds. However, they did find evidence that vitamin C may shorten how long you suffer from a cold. One large study found that people who took a vitamin C megadose -- 8 grams on the first day of a cold -- shortened the duration of their colds.
To prevent colds the natural way, it's best to make sure you've got a well-nourished immune system. Dark green foods like spinach are loaded with vitamins A and C. Salmon is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, which fight inflammation. Low-fat yogurt may help stimulate the immune system.
Regular exercise -- such as aerobics and walking -- also boosts the immune system. People who exercise may still catch a virus, but they have less severe symptoms. They may recover more quickly compared with less-healthy people.
SOURCES: Singh, M. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2011.
CDC: "Q&A: Preventing the Flu." "Q&A: Cold Vs. Flu."
William Schaffner, MD, chairman, preventive medicine, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.
Tracy Wimbush, MD, emergency room specialist, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.
Douglas, R. Public Library of Science Medicine, June 2005.
News release, Public Library of Science.
University of Pennsylvania Office of Health Education: "Cold and Flu Remedies: Questions and Answers."
WebMD Medical Reference: "Answers About Home Remedies for Cold and Flu," "When Should I See A Doctor for a Cold or the Flu?" "12 Tips to Prevent Cold and Flu the 'Natural' Way," "Sinusitis." WebMD Feature: "Call in Sick or Go to Work?"
WebMD Medical News: "Vitamin C May Not Fight the Common Cold;" "Cure for the Common Cold - The Elusive Search;" and "How to Short-Circuit a Cold - Maybe."
Medline Plus: “Common Cold,” “Flu.”