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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

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Nasal Spray May Kill Cold Virus

Virus Levels Drop Faster in Volunteers Given Oxymetazoline Spray
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sept. 15, 2009 (San Francisco) -- Oxymetazoline, a compound found in many over-the-counter nasal decongestant sprays, may help kill the virus that causes the common cold, researchers report.

In a new study, viral levels dropped more quickly than expected in volunteers treated with oxymetazoline nasal sprays, says Birgit Winther, MD, PhD, of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Winther tells WebMD that previous research in test tubes suggested that oxymetazoline had an antiviral effect against rhinovirus, which causes the common cold.

As the next step, she and colleagues infected 94 young healthy adult volunteers with the rhinovirus.

Three hours later, “before they really got sick,” half were randomly assigned to receive oxymetazoline nasal spray and the other half were given a saline spray. The volunteers received one puff of either spray into each nostril three times daily for five days.

Cold Virus Levels Drop Quickly in Volunteers Given Oxymetazoline

If no medication is given, “you would expect viral levels in nasal secretions to peak two to three days after infection,” Winther says. That’s just what happened in the volunteers who were treated with saline.

But in volunteers given oxymetazoline, rhinovirus levels in nasal secretions started to drop by day two, she says.

Winther says the quick dip in viral levels could help reduce the spread of the cold virus from the nose into the ears, sinus, and lungs, as well as from person to person.

By the fourth day after infection with rhinovirus, however, viral levels were lower -- and the same -- in both groups.

The new study was presented at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

Long-Term Use Has Rebound Effect

Sprays containing oxymetazoline are sold under a variety of trade names, including Afrin, Dristan 12-Hour Nasal Spray, Duramist Plus, and Vicks Sinex 12 Hour Nasal Spray.

A decongestant, oxymetazoline works by shrinking blood vessels in your nasal tissues, allowing mucus to drain.

The sprays work very quickly to reduce symptoms, Winther says, but you can't use them long-term. After five days, they can damage your nasal tissue and lead to chronic congestion.

Michael Ison, MD, an infectious diseases expert at Northwestern University in Chicago who moderated the session at which the findings were presented, says he isn’t sure that the quick dip in viral levels in volunteers given oxymetazoline “is clinically meaningful.”

The sprays “definitely provide symptom relief,” but further study is needed to confirm an antiviral effect, he tells WebMD.

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