How to Treat the Dreaded Cold

The cure for the common cold ain’t coming any time soon, which really stinks. I am writing this while coughing, sneezing, blowing my nose and complaining about the pain in my throat and the pain in my chest. I finally gave in and took some cold medicine, which has not kicked in yet, and possibly never will. Over the last few weeks, I have seen many patients with upper respiratory infections, and my advice is always, frustratingly, the same — all you can do is treat the symptoms. It is not great advice, and I know everyone is hoping for an antibiotic, but as the vast majority of colds are caused by viruses, they will do you no good.

To treat a cold, start with the basics:

— increase fluids
— increase rest
— for sore throats, gargle with salt water several times a day
— for congestion, use a netti pot and sit in a steamy shower

For more specific symptom relief, take mediations that address your ailments:

— for headaches, body aches and throat pain, take tylenol or ibuprofen
— for nasal congestion, try an oral decongestant like phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine, or a nasal decongestant like Afrin or Dristan which is oxymetazoline **NOTE: do not use nasal decongestants for more than three days, or you are at risk for rebound congestion
The jury is out on antihistamines for treating a cold. While they are effective in treating runny noses due to allergies, they are probably not all that helpful when it comes to a runny nose from a cold.
— for cough, your choices are an antitussive like dextromethorphan (stops the cough) or an expectorant like guaifenesin (loosens the mucous to make it easier to clear)

There are combination cold medications like Mucinex and DayQuil, which contain the same medications, though the dosing schedule may be different. They both have the same amounts of acetaminophen (tylenol), dextromethorphan (cough suppressant), doxylamine succinate (antihistamine) and phenylephrine (nasal decongestant). Mucinex makes Mucinex D and Mucinex DM. DM contains dextromethorphan and guaifenesin. Mucinex D contains guaifenesin and pseudoephedrine. Because pseudoephedrine can be used in the manufacturing of meth, it is kept behind the pharmacy counter.

What about products claiming to shorten the duration of a cold? The evidence is not great to support them, and like any substance we ingest or spray into our nose, there are risks of side effects.

If you have a high fever, your symptoms are severe or you have shortness of breath, see your doctor. If you have a medical condition like high blood pressure or diabetes, ask your doctor before taking over the counter cold remedies.

The only “cure” for a cold is not to get one in the first place. I swear I got this one because I was eating so much candy corn. Do what I say and not what I do, and support your immune system best you can right now. The germs are scarier than the goblins.


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Author: Karen Latimer

Karen is a Family Physician, founder and president of Tips From Town. She loves combining all she learned as a doctor with all she continues to learn as a mom of five to bring you interesting, useful and fun information on the Family Pages.

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