The aisles of grocery and drug stores are stocked full of over-the-counter (OTC) products featuring promises to either prevent or heal the common cold. Do they truly work? Or are we simply so desperate for a fast and easy cold remedy that we’re willing to spend our hard-earned money on modern-day snake oil?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are millions of cases of the common cold in the United States each year. Adults have two or three colds per year, and children have even more.
Colds are a virus with a long list of uncomfortable symptoms such as a sore throat, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, watery eyes, headaches and body aches that usually stick around for a week or more. There is no vaccine to protect you against the common cold and there is no cure. Furthermore, antibiotics do not work against colds, and taking them unnecessarily could weaken your body’s ability to fight future bacterial infections.
It’s no wonder we turn to OTC remedies in hopes of relieving cold symptoms and quickly getting back to life’s daily activities. According to Dr. James Lin, a board-certified Internal Medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, some products might actually help.
“Nothing can cure a cold, but some remedies might lessen your symptoms ,” says Dr. Lin. “Studies have shown that zinc lozenges or syrup can help reduce the length of a cold if taken within the first 24 hours of symptoms by otherwise healthy patients. Research has also found that mega doses of vitamin C — up to eight grams — on the first day of symptoms may help shorten the length of a cold.”
OTC medications, such as decongestants and antihistamines, can also help relieve symptoms, but like other remedies, they will not cure your cold. They also may have some unwanted side effects.
“Decongestants, such as pseudoephedrine, can raise your blood pressure and heart rate, and make it difficult to fall asleep,” says Dr. Lin. “Antihistamines can make you sleepy, so be careful if you’re going to drive. Furthermore, some zinc nasal sprays have been linked to permanent loss of smell.”
So, what are we to do when we come down with a cold? The CDC and Dr. Lin recommend the following easy steps: drink lots of fluids and rest.
To reduce your risk of future colds, avoid others who are sick, wash your hands often with soap and water, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Dr. Lin also says a healthy lifestyle and diet can help.
“Practice basic hygiene, such as washing your hands frequently; enjoy a good diet rich in fruits and vegetables; and exercise,” he says. “These things can help boost your immune system.”