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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

Frequently Asked Questions About the Common Cold

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4. What's the best treatment for a cold? continued...

Over-the-counter medicines can give you relief from aches and fever:

  • Aspirin. People under age 20 should not take it because of the risk of Reye's syndrome.
  • Decongestants. They can help make breathing easier. But don't use sprays for more than 3 days because they can cause swelling in passageways in your nose and make your symptoms worse.
  • Saline nasal sprays. They can also open breathing passages and may be used freely.
  • Cough preparations. They aren'thugely effective. For minor coughs, water and fruit juices probably help the most. The FDA says that over-the-counter cough and cold medicines should not be given to children under age 4.

For relief from a sore throat, try gargling with salt water.

5. How effective are natural remedies like zinc, echinacea, and vitamin C?

There are mixed reviews on zinc. Some studies show that zinc nasal sprays can help reduce how long your cold lasts and make your symptoms less severe.

The theory? Zinc sprays may coat the cold virus and prevent it from attaching to cells in your nose, where they enter your body.

Other studies show that zinc isn't helpful. And because of the risk of a loss of smell, many experts recommend that you avoid zinc nasal sprays completely.

Recent studies on echinacea show that it isn't helpful in preventing colds. But in one study, 120 people with cold-like symptoms took 20 drops of echinacea every 2 hours for 10 days and had briefer colds than others.

As for vitamin C, a recent look at 65 years of studies found limited benefit. The researchers saw no evidence that it prevents colds. But they did find signs that your colds might not last as long if you take vitamin C. One large study found that people who took a megadose -- 8 grams on the first day they got sick -- shortened the length of their colds.

To prevent colds the natural way, it's best to make sure you've got a well-nourished immune system, your body's defense against germs. 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 activate the immune system.

Regular exercise also boosts the immune system. People who do it may still catch a virus, but their symptoms aren't as bad, and they may recover more quickly.

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