Treatments for Symptoms of the Common Cold

Which interventions are effective for treating symptoms of the common cold? Experts recently posted their answer to this question in American Family Physician.

Here’s a summary of their advice:

There is no single treatment that produces significant improvements in symptoms of the common cold. Also, no therapy treats the underlying viral infections associated with the common cold. In addition, over-the-counter preparations should NOT be used in children younger than six years because they are more likely to produce harm than benefit. However, there are some therapies that may improve symptoms or reduce the incidence or duration of colds.

LIKELY EFFECTIVE

  • Intranasal administration of prescription ipratropium (Atrovent) decreases rhinorrhea symptoms, but has no effect on nasal congestion.
  • Therapeutic use of oral zinc reduces the duration and severity of colds when taken within 24 hours of symptom onset. Adverse effects, such as bad taste and nausea, are common.
  • High-dose vitamin C does not prevent colds, but when used prophylactically it reduces the duration of colds by 8% and reduces cold symptoms, especially in children.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs reduce pain associated with the common cold, but do not shorten cold duration or overall respiratory symptom scores.

POSSIBLY EFFECTIVE

  • A liquid preparation of the herb P. sidoides may slightly reduce the duration of sputum production and cough in adults and children with acute bronchitis.
  • Therapeutic use of E. purpurea may improve cold symptoms in adults, but the evidence is inconsistent.
  • Intranasal saline may produce limited symptomatic benefit in adults, but children may not be able to tolerate it.

UNKNOWN EFFECTIVENESS

  • acupuncture,
  • conjugated linolenic acid,
  • Chinese herbal medicines,
  • garlic,
  • ginseng,
  • homeopathy,
  • honey,
  • hot liquids,
  • humidified air, and
  • sea buckthorn berries.

INEFFECTIVE

  • Antihistamines alone,
  • prophylactic use of Echinacea preparations, and
  • prescription antibiotics.
  • When started after symptom onset, vitamin C is also ineffective.

HARMS OUTWEIGH BENEFITS

  • Over-the-counter cough and cold medications for children younger than six years are ineffective and are associated with overdose and toxicity.
  • Intranasal zinc can cause permanent anosmia.

Recommendations from Others

  • The American College of Chest Physicians recommends treating common cold symptoms with a first-generation antihistamine/decongestant preparation and naproxen.
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that over-the-counter cough and cold medications should not be used in children younger than two years because of potentially life-threatening adverse effects.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics makes a similar recommendation, and says that studies show that these medications have little benefit in children younger than six years.

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