Understanding Common Cold -- Treatments

What Are Treatments for the Common Cold?

Since there is no cure for the common cold, treatment has two goals: to make you feel better and to help you fight off the virus.

Lots of rest is the key treating a cold. You may find you need 12 hours of sleep each night, so don't set that alarm. You'll be most comfortable in a warm, humid environment. It's also important to stay hydrated by drinking lots of water and avoiding alcohol and caffeine. This makes mucus flow more freely and helps with congestion.

No specific treatment exists for the virus that is causing your cold, but in treating the symptoms you can find relief. For aches and pains accompanied by a fever of 100.5 degrees or higher, give Tylenol rather than aspirin in children to avoid the risk of Reye syndrome, a sometimes fatal condition that may occur in children with viral illnesses. Adults can take Tylenol, aspirin or Naproxen OTC. There is a soft recommendation to avoid ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), which may increase replication of rhinovirus.

If your throat is sore, gargle as often as you like with warm salt water (1/2 teaspoon salt in 1 cup water).

Think twice before using heavily advertised over-the-counter cold and flu medications, which likely contain drugs for symptoms you don't have and therefore may result in needless overtreatment. The FDA and manufacturers now say that over-the-counter cough and cold drugs should not be given to children under age 4.

Over-the-counter decongestants containing pseudoephedrine can help dry and clear nasal passages, but only temporarily. Decongestant nasal sprays like oxymetazoline (Afrin) can help, too, but if they're used for more than three to five days, they may cause a "rebound" effect. This means more mucus and worse congestion. 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.

Over-the-counter decongestants containing phenylpropanolamine have been pulled voluntarily from the shelves because they increase the risk of stroke. If you have a drug containing this ingredient, also called PPA, throw it away.

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Over-the-counter cough suppressants, such as those containing dextromethorphan, can be helpful if your cough is so severe that it interferes with sleeping or talking. Otherwise, allow yourself to cough as you need to (always covering your mouth as you do), because coughing removes mucus and germs from your throat and lungs.

Antihistamines seem to help some people, but their effect during colds remains controversial.

Good nutrition is essential for resisting and recovering from a cold. Eat a balanced diet. Take supplements as needed to ensure you are receiving the recommended dietary allowances for vitamin A, the vitamin B complex (vitamins B1, B2, B5, B6, folic acid), and vitamin C, as well as the minerals zinc and copper. Both vitamin C and zinc are essential for production of infection-fighting neutrophils; without adequate levels, you're an easy mark for all types of infections. Evidence shows zinc may shorten the duration of a cold, especially in adults if taken within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms. Avoid zinc nasal spray as it may lead to permanent loss of smell.

After much research, vitamin C is believed to have a small effect in preventing colds, and no benefit in treating a cold. There have been several large studies in adults and in children, but the results have been inconclusive. Taking a lot of vitamin C over a long period of time can be harmful.

Chicken soup has been heralded as a cold therapy since the 12th century. Recent scientific evidence shows mild support for the notion that chicken soup reduces cold symptoms, especially congestion.

Asian healing treatments often use hot soups to treat upper respiratory infections, making use of red pepper, lemongrass, and ginger, in particular. Any food spicy enough to make your eyes water will have the same effect on your nose, promoting drainage. If you feel like eating, a hot, spicy soup may help ease your cold symptoms.

To ease cold symptoms, the essential oils of aromatherapy may be rubbed on the body, inhaled with steam, diffused into the air, or poured on a cloth to be used as a compress. Try rubbing diluted eucalyptus oil on the chest as a decongestant, or inhale eucalyptus or peppermint oil to clear stuffiness. Adding lavender, cedar, or lemon to steam may also soothe nasal passages. Inhaling menthol not only provides relief from nasal congestion, but might help inhibit infection as well. Rosemary, thyme, mint, basil, and tea tree oils can also provide relief from symptoms of a cold. Use caution if you have asthma, since aromatherapy can trigger an attack.

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Many Americans turn to herbal remedies to ease cold symptoms. Some research supports the use of the Chinese herbal remedies yin chao and gan mao ling. Rather than self-prescribe, it's best to consult an expert practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Echinacea may help strengthen the immune system by stimulating the activity of white blood cells, but there is little evidence that it can prevent colds in particular. Several studies show adults using echinacea at the first sign of a cold suffered shorter and less severe illness. Because herbs are so poorly regulated and labeled in the U.S., however, it's difficult to know if the product you're using contains the right species and active ingredient. If you decide to try echinacea, take small doses for no more than eight weeks, since prolonged use may suppress your immune system.

Little research exists to support the use of other herbs, such as astragalus, eyebright, elder flower, garlic, ginseng, goldenseal, or yarrow.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on March 16, 2017

Sources

SOURCES: 

Singh, M. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2011. 

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: "Common Cold." 

Palo Alto Medical Foundation: "The Common Cold." 

University of Virginia Health System: "Upper Respiratory Infection (URI or Common Cold)." 

National Jewish Medical and Research Center: "Getting Well When You Have a Cold or the Flu." 

Medline Plus: "Common Cold." 

FDA: "Colds and Flu: Time only Sure Cure." 

American Lung Association: "A Survival Guide for Preventing and Treating Influenza and the Common Cold."

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