Stop a Cold in Just 12 Hours
If You're Prone to Sinus Infections
Once a cold virus latches on to cells in your respiratory tract, immune
system responders cause blood vessels in your nasal passages to swell and leak
fluid. They also boost mucus production and slow down cilia — the microscopic
hairs that normally sweep secretions out of your sinuses, ears, and lungs.
"This sets the stage for a sinus infection, because viruses and, to a
lesser extent, bacteria thrive in trapped mucus," says Dr. Marshall. The
best approach is to keep your nose open. "I preach to my patients all the
time: If you can breathe through your nose, the likelihood of developing
secondary complications will be much, much lower." Here's how.
- Use a decongestant. Sprays containing phenylephrine (Neo-Synephrine)
or oxymetazoline (Afrin) shrink swollen blood vessels in the lining of your
nose, allowing mucus to drain. "Sprays work almost instantaneously,"
says Dr. Marshall, "but you can't use them long-term. After three to five
days, they can cause rebound congestion — stuffiness returns just a few hours
after each dose, tempting you to use the spray more and more frequently."
To avoid this, spray for no more than two or three days, then take two to three
days off, he advises. "You'll be able to use it safely for another two to
three days if necessary."
- Try a pill. If you hate sprays, decongestant tablets can also clear
your stuffiness, a recent Australian review of cold-remedy research has found.
And they can work fast, reports a British study of 238 women and men with
stuffy noses: Those who took 60 milligrams of pseudoephedrine (brand name:
Sudafed) reported a 30 percent drop in congestion after just one dose. The
downside is that decongestant pills make some people very jittery and they can
keep you awake, so you shouldn't take them late in the day. (Sprays don't have
these side effects because they're topical — only a little is absorbed into the
body.) Ask for pseudoephedrine at the counter: Because its ingredients can be
used to make the street drug methamphetamine, federal law requires stores to
keep pseudoephedrine-containing products behind the counter or locked in a
cabinet. Choose one that's just a decongestant to make sure you get the
recommended 60-milligram dose — combination remedies may contain too little
decongestant for maximum benefit.
- Consider an antihistamine. In recent studies, antihistamines (the
old-fashioned kind, like Chlor-Trimeton, not the new non-drowsy formulas)
reduced nasal secretions by about 50 percent, says Dr. Gwaltney. The less gunk
in your nose, the less there is to become trapped in your sinuses. He suggests
taking antihistamines for up to a week; if these make you sleepy, be careful
about driving and similar activities.
- Thin that mucus. As a cold progresses, nasal secretions grow thicker
and thicker because they are carrying away viral particles and sloughed-off
respiratory and immune cells. To keep things moving, try an over-the-counter
mucus thinner that contains guaifenesin (such as Mucinex), Dr. Marshall
advises. "You'll know within 48 to 72 hours whether it's helping you,"
he says. "Your mucus will be thinner, and it'll be easier for you to blow
your nose." It's OK to take one along with a decongestant.
- Honk with finesse. Vigorous nose blowing propels nasal fluids up
into your sinuses, which can actually cause an infection, Dr. Gwaltney's
studies have found. Hard blowing also triggers "reflex nasal
congestion" — more nasal-passage swelling. It sounds silly, but "fewer
than half the people we see know how to blow their noses the right way,"
says Dr. Marshall. Here's how: With a tissue over your nose, close one nostril
and gently blow the other side for three to five seconds. Switch sides. "It
may take several blows, but it works."
- Sip chicken soup. In one lab study from the Nebraska Medical Center
in Omaha, researcher Stephen Rennard, M.D., discovered that his
grandmother-in-law's chicken soup recipe might help relieve some of the
inflammation behind cold symptoms. In the test tube, the soup inhibited
movement of white blood cells called neutrophils by 75 percent; researchers
suspect that in your upper respiratory tract, this curtailed movement could
translate into a reduction in cold symptoms.
- Warm your sinuses. Placing a comfortably hot washcloth on your
cheeks or drinking a cup of hot tea — or doing both — feels good if sinus
pressure is building. Warmth may also nudge cilia, which become sluggish when
you have a cold, so they sweep back and forth more briskly to whisk mucus
along. Inhaling steam in a warm shower also helps, or drape a towel over your
head and a basin of very hot water and breathe deeply.
- Try andrographis paniculata. This herb is less well-known than other
botanicals purported to fight colds, but in one Chilean study of 158 cold
sufferers, nasal secretions dried up significantly for those who took 1,200
milligrams of andrographis extract daily for five days. It's available at
natural foods stores; if you try it, follow package dosing directions.
- Call the doctor if you have a fever; your face or the area around
your eyes is red, swollen, or painful; you have a severe headache or neck pain;
or your symptoms (sinus pain, pressure, yellowish discharge) haven't improved
after a week's time.