We hear reports of all kinds of remedies for the common cold, from sucking on zinc lozenges to rubbing garlic on your clothes. Here is what the world’s foremost experts on the common cold have to say about such remedies.
What causes colds?
Colds are caused by any of several hundred different viruses specially adapted to grow in the nose (rhinoviruses and coronaviruses). That’s why it has proven impossible, so far, to make a reliable vaccine. We haven’t been able to develop one effective against all the viruses.
Smokers are particularly vulnerable to colds because tobacco smoke dries out the mucus membranes lining the mouth and nose, impairing their ability to fend off viruses. Moderate drinkers (those with the equivalent of one glass of wine daily) seem less susceptible.
One thing that does not affect your risk of catching a cold is being cold. For many years, there have been various studies in which volunteers got soaked in cold baths or stood out in the rain, which showed no difference in catching a cold between a person standing out in the rain or in cold baths and those who stayed warm and dry.
That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to go out in wintry weather without proper warm clothing. Being cold can precipitate bacterial pneumonia and other serious ailments.
How do colds spread?
Scientists disagree on this. Many think the virus spreads when a person inhales tiny virus-laden droplets of mucus and saliva liberated by the sneeze of an infected person. Some evidence suggests that catching a cold is possible simply by being close (within a yard or so) to an infected person.
Other scientists think the virus spreads via hand-to-hand contact or by touching an object touched recently by an infected person, connecting the germ-laden hand to the face.
What can I do to avoid colds?
Since we can’t count on others to stay at home when they’re ill, it pays to avoid sitting or standing near anyone you suspect has a cold and to watch where you put your hands and wash them often.
Does vitamin C prevent colds?
Despite its popularity, vitamin C has never been proven to prevent or cure colds. Study after study has found no real difference in the incidence, duration, or severity of colds between people who took vitamin C (up to 3,000 milligrams a day) and those who did not take C. Although it is a fact that a person with vitamin C deficiency due to a lack of proper nutritional consumption leads to a greater susceptibility to infections.
What about flu shots?
They prevent certain types of influenza but won’t keep from catching a cold. The efficacy of influenza vaccination varies depending on several elements, such as the age and fitness of the individual, what vaccine has been administered, and the sorts, subtypes (for influenza a), and lineages (for influenza b) of circulating influenza viruses.
Does psychological stress increase my vulnerability to colds?
Yes, it does. People under stressful circumstances such as job loss, the death of a close relative, or even desirable forms of stress like getting married were more prone to colds than others.
The studies found an almost twofold difference in infection rates among the most and least stressed individuals.
What’s the best way to treat a cold?
First, there’s no way to cure a common cold; but following this advice can make the symptoms more bearable.
- Stay hydrated with water, juice, clear broth, or warm lemon with honey to keep the mucus membrane moist and helps loosen congestion and soothe a sore throat.
- Rest to help the body heal.
- Inhale water vapor from a steam kettle, hot bath, or shower to help clear nasal passages. A hot bath is relaxing as well.
- Keep the room air moist by using a humidifier or a kettle.
What about over-the-counter medications?
Aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen are the most common OTC medications to reduce pain and fever. Children under 12 (some sources say 19) should not take aspirin because of the risk of Reye’s syndrome. Aspirin can cause stomach upset, and acetaminophen occasionally causes liver damage. Ibuprofen has a good safety record, although it, too, can cause stomach upset.
A decongestant containing phenylephrine constricts dilated blood vessels, reducing swelling and secretion of mucus. It’s best to take this drug in nose drops or nasal spray because the effect happens locally.
Taking any drug by mouth exposes the entire body to its effects. Never use a nasal decongestant spray or drops for more than a week. If you do, you risk a “rebound” reaction, in which congestion worsens, and the body becomes dependent on the drug.
Should I consult a medical doctor if I have a cold?
In most cases, that’s unnecessary, but if symptoms persist for more than a week, or you have a high fever or a pus-like nasal secretion, you may have developed a bacterial infection on top of your cold. In such cases, see a doctor immediately. Ask if you need antibiotics, which, by the way, are ineffective against colds.
Children under age three, older adults, and those with lung or heart trouble are at greater risk of potentially deathly complications. They should notify their doctors at the first sign of anything more than a very mild cold.
The doctor should also determine whether you have a cold or the flu. A mild case of flu is often indistinguishable from a cold, and severe cold may resemble the flu. Although both share sore throat, runny nose, and cough, influenza usually involves muscle aches, headache, and high fever.
The antiviral drugs oseltamivir (Tamiflu), zanamivir (Relenza Diskhaler), and inhaled medication can speed up recovery from influenza. However, they’re effective only if taken soon after the onset of symptoms.
Does exercise make cold worse?
There’s no evidence that exercise prolongs or exacerbates a cold. Indeed, some people say they feel better afterward. As a general guide, mild to moderate physical activity is usually fine if you have a common cold. But don’t push yourself if you feel terrible.
Are any popular home remedies helpful?
Many old-fashioned remedies seem to reduce discomfort, even if they don’t get rid of the cold. For example, warm liquids like chicken soup soothe the throat while the rising steam loosens up mucus. And tea made with ginger or another fragrant herb helps settle an upset stomach.
Menthol mixed with hot water to make steam or rubbed in gel form on the upper lip seems to clear clogged nasal passages.
Zinc lozenges, echinacea herb, and homeopathic products seem to
help treat colds. But at this point, their effectiveness has not been proven.