Coping With the Common Cold
Determined this cold season to nip your
sneezing, runny nose and scratchy throat in the bud before those
nasty respiratory symptoms sideline you?
There's a broad array of cold remedies
you might want to try, ranging from over-the-counter preparations
to basic ingredients tucked away in your kitchen pantry.
So what'll it be? A combination pain
reliever and nasal decongestant? Vitamin C and echinacea? Tea with
honey? A brimming bowl of chicken soup?
It turns out the best advice for
dealing with the misery of a cold is the same principle mothers
often apply when trying to coax their unruly toddlers to take a
nap: Whatever works.
After all these years, scientists
still have not nailed down a cure-all for the 200 different viruses
known to cause symptoms of the common cold. And while nutritionally
oriented doctors often tout the cold-fighting properties of certain
vitamins, minerals and herbs, others say the evidence is mixed.
Dr. Norman H. Edelman, a consultant
for scientific affairs for the American Lung Association, lumps
vitamin C and the herb echinacea into the category of "the
unprovens." They might work, he said, but there's a lack of
scientific evidence to demonstrate their effectiveness.
"We advise patients to do the
sensible things," he offered. "The most important thing
is to try to avoid a cold." Frequent hand washing, for instance,
is a must.
That's little comfort to the Americans
who collectively suffer an estimated 1 billion colds a year, according
to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Colds
are particularly prevalent among children, who get six to 10 a year.
Adults have about two to four colds a year, mostly between September
and May, the American Lung Association reports.
While the typical cold is little
more than an annoyance, lasting a week or two, its societal toll
is huge. Nearly 22 million school days are lost each year due to
the common cold, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control
With so many people desperate for
relief, researchers continue to grasp for evidence to substantiate
or dismiss potential cold remedies.
Several years ago, experts tapped
by the Cochrane Collaboration, a United Kingdom-based nonprofit
that disseminates medical evidence, reviewed 30 trials involving
long-term vitamin C supplementation. Taking large daily doses doesn't
prevent colds, they found, but it does appear to modestly reduce
the duration of cold symptoms.
"For people who have vitamin
C-deficient diets, it very likely works as both a treatment and
a preventive," said Dr. Bruce Barrett, an assistant professor
in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin
As for echinacea's medicinal properties,
"I think the jury's still out," said Barrett, who was
the lead author of a 2002 Annals of Internal Medicine study
of the popular herb. It's no better than a placebo for shortening
a cold's duration or reducing the severity of symptoms, he found.
And then there's zinc, an essential
mineral purported to have some benefit as a cold remedy. But the
evidence is equivocal, Barrett said. Of the 14 trials conducted
to date, eight reported positive results and six found no benefit,
Zicam, an over-the-counter zinc-containing
nasal gel, is one way to get the benefit of that mineral without
having to endure its unpleasant metallic taste. A study reported
last year, paid for by the makers of Zicam, found it can cut the
length and severity of a cold by half when the patient begins treatment
within 48 hours after symptoms have begun.
"I wouldn't discount it at all,"
Barrett said, "but when you just have a couple of studies that
are pretty much embedded in one corporate research structure, I
don't think it's proven yet."
In the throes of a miserable cold,
many Americans still reach for familiar pain relievers, decongestants
and antihistamines in the cold-and-flu aisle of their local drugstore.
These products can't cure a cold but may provide instant relief
Antihistamines, such as Benadryl,
will dry up a runny nose, but virtually all of the over-the-counter
products cause drowsiness, Edelman cautioned. Non-drowsy exceptions
include Alavert and Claritin, which contain the antihistamine loratadine,
"If you have to drive, then
you probably ought to take a non-sedating antihistamine," he
Cold products that relieve nasal
congestion without sleep-inducing antihistamines often contain pseudoephedrine,
a type of decongestant that can cause nervousness, dizziness or
restlessness. People with heart conditions or high blood pressure
should consult a doctor before taking products with this ingredient.
"In general, I would steer people
away from the decongestants because they work like adrenaline, like
a stimulant," Barrett said.
To reduce a fever or ease body aches,
try taking aspirin or acetaminophen.
Got an irritating cough? There's
little evidence that cough-suppressing anti-tussive medications
actually work, yet there appears to be a strong placebo effect,
In fact, as with many cold-relieving
strategies, if you think it works, it probably will, said Barrett,
who finds evidence in support of the placebo effect too strong to
ignore. Over the next three years, he hopes to enroll 800 cold sufferers
in a trial that will examine the healing power of suggestion using
echinacea versus a placebo.
It will be several years before those
results are in. In the meantime, Barrett has a health tip for those
who feel the sniffles coming on.
"Without any scientific evidence
whatsoever, I can recommend that people drink their favorite herbal
teas or chicken soups," he said. "It helps because people
believe in it; it helps trigger your own innate system of healing."
Reference Source 101