Every year, adults suffer from the common cold approximately two to three times. It afflicts children under age 2 about six times annually. Medical costs associated with cold and flu can surpass $42 billion per year. This exorbitant figure combines direct care like doctor visits, secondary infections, and cold medications with indirect expenses from missing work for personal illness or to look after a sick child.
Typical symptoms such as sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, yellow or green drainage, sneezing, coughing, fever of 100° F or higher, chills, headache, sore muscles, and fatigue are worse in days one through three usually. They can last seven to 10 days or even up to three weeks at times. A new review of multiple studies found that hand washing and zinc provide the best cold prevention while Ibuprofen, Acetaminophen, and perhaps an antihistamine/decongestant combination are the most effective treatments.
Dr. G Michael Allan, a family medicine physician at the University of Alberta in Canada who directs the medical school’s evidence-based medicine program, led the comparative examination of multiple cold prevention and treatment methods. It featured randomized controlled trials looking for cause and effect, the gold standard for medical research. “Although self-limiting, the common cold is highly prevalent and may be debilitating. It causes declines in function and productivity at work and may affect other activities such as driving,” the authors reported in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
Researchers tackled cold prevention efforts first. Their review of 67 trials showed that hand washing, a traditional public health approach, was effective at preventing colds in the majority of studies. So were other physical interventions like using alcohol-based disinfectants and gloves.
Two trials treated children with 10 or 15 milligrams of zinc sulfate daily to avoid colds. The number of colds, school absences, and rates of antibiotic use were significantly lower in the zinc treatment group, compared to those who took placebos. The investigators found no biological reason why zinc would work only in children and not adults.
Probiotics, supplements containing good bacteria to boost the immune system, might be helpful in preventing upper respiratory tract infections. But the types and combinations of organisms and formulations (pills, liquids, etc.) varied in the studies, making comparison difficult. One study found that gargling with water for 15 seconds three times a day was advantageous. The scientists deemed ginseng questionable for preventing colds, based on available studies. They found no meaningful prevention benefits for average patients taking vitamin C, vitamin D, and Echinacea.
Further analysis included treatments that help after you get sick with a cold. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Ibuprofen and analgesics like Acetaminophen appear to be effective in relieving pain and fever but not for other cold symptoms. Studies found that antihistamines and decongestants alone didn’t improve cold and flu symptoms clinically, but a combination of both drugs was likely to help curb some symptoms somewhat or moderately in adults and children over age 5. Still, the researchers didn’t recommend combination treatment for children 5 and younger, citing a lack of supportive studies.
Research showed that intranasal Ipratropium, a prescription nasal spray that treats allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, may alleviate runny nose symptoms. Over-the-counter cough medications brought slight relief to adults but not children. Vapor rubs helped kids and adults sleep. A single spoonful of honey reduced coughing in children over age 1 and encouraged sleep. Although zinc helped prevent colds, it didn’t work consistently after subjects contracted viruses. Oral zinc might help reduce the duration and severity of the common cold in adults, but studies found no benefits for sick kids. The researchers didn’t recommend zinc nasal spray use for any age group.
Cold symptoms can mimic other conditions including allergies, sinusitis, strep throat, and influenza. A doctor visit might clear up any confusion about what’s ailing you or your family. But resist the temptation to demand antibiotics, warns CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook, who wasn’t involved in the study analysis. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections — not cold and flu viruses. Bacterial infections occur with only about 5 percent of clinically diagnosed colds. Your doctor might prescribe an antibiotic if your symptoms linger more than three days because they could signal a sinus infection. The new review also found that antibiotics offered no benefits for treating the common cold.
Prepare for the Upcoming Cold and Flu Season
Treating your symptoms won’t make your cold go away, but it will help you feel better. Get pain and fever relief from over-the-counter Ibuprofen like Advil or Acetaminophen such as Tylenol. Prepare for the upcoming season by shopping and comparing a wide variety of cold and flu remedies online before you get sick.
Also follow these tips from the National Institutes of Health. Wash your hands correctly to stop germs from spreading. Rub soap onto wet hands and under your fingernails for 20 seconds. Dry your hands with a clean paper towel. Turn the faucet off with a paper towel. Rub a dime-sized amount of hand sanitizer all over your hands until they’re dry.
Keep your vaccinations up to date. To avoid infecting others, stay home when you’re sick. Cough or sneeze into a tissue or the crease of your elbow — not into the air. Drink plenty of fluids, get enough sleep, and stay away from secondhand smoke.