We hear reports of home remedies of all kinds for colds, from sucking on zinc lozenges to rubbing garlic on clothing. To find out what medical science thinks about how to prevent a common cold using such remedies, we spoke to a doctor who is one of the world’s most renowned common cold experts and belongs to the Medical British Research Council in England.
What is the cause of the common cold?
Colds are caused by any of the hundreds of different viruses specially adapted to grow inside the nose (rhinovirus and coronavirus). So it has been impossible – until now – to make a reliable vaccine. We have not been able to create a single one that is effective against all viruses.
Smokers are particularly vulnerable to the common cold. Tobacco smoke dries up the mucus from the membranes that cover your mouth and nose and impairs your ability to stop viruses. Moderate drinkers (those who drink the equivalent of one glass of wine a day) appear to be less susceptible.
Something that doesn’t affect your risk of catching a cold is exposing yourself to the cold. Over the years, several studies have been conducted in which some volunteers took cold baths or got wet in the rain. The percentage of these people that got sick with the common cold was not higher than the people who stayed hot and dry.
This does not mean that it is a good idea to go out in winter without appropriate clothing. Staying cold can precipitate bacterial pneumonia and other serious ailments.
How do the common cold spreads?
Scientists disagree on this. Many think that the virus is spread when a person inhales the tiny droplets of mucus and saliva containing the virus that is released by the sneeze of an infected person. Various tests indicate that it is possible to get a cold just by being close (about a yard or a meter) to an infected person.
Other scientists think the virus is spread by hand contact… or when an object recently touched
by an infected person is touched, and then the microbe-laden hand is
brought to the face.
What can be done to avoid the common cold?
Because we can’t count on people to stay home when they’re sick, it’s best to avoid sitting or standing near someone you suspect has a cold… and keeping an eye on where they put their hands.
Does vitamin C prevent colds?
Despite its popularity, vitamin C has never been shown to prevent or cure colds. After several studies, no true difference in the incidence, duration, or severity of colds could be found among people who took vitamin C (up to 3000 mg daily) and those who did not take it. The data shows that vitamin C is only marginally beneficial.
Are influenza vaccines effective?
Flu shots prevent certain kinds of flu but don’t keep you from catching a cold.
Does psychological stress make me more vulnerable to colds?
Definitely. Stress will make you more vulnerable. Several years ago, a series of studies were done in collaboration with Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University. People who had recently undergone a stressful experience – the loss of a job, the death of a close relative, or even desirable forms of stress such as marriage – were found to be more prone to colds than other people.
They found that the difference in infection rates almost doubled between the individuals with the highest – and least – amounts of stress.
What is the best way to treat a cold?
As long as there is no way to cure a common cold, it is possible to make the symptoms more bearable…
- Drink fluids to keep mucous membranes moist.
- Relieve sore throat with warm and sweet drinks, such as tea with honey. Or gargle with saltwater.
- Inhale steam from a steam kettle or take a hot bath or shower to help clean the nasal passages. Also, a warm bath is relaxing.
- Keep the air humid using a humidifier or kettle.
Are non-prescription over-the-counter medications good?
Take aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen to reduce pain and fever. Warning: You should not give aspirin to children under 12 years of age, due to the risk of Reye syndrome. Aspirin can cause an upset stomach, and acetaminophen can occasionally cause liver damage. Ibuprofen has a good safety record,
although it can also cause an upset stomach.
A decongestant may contain ephedrine, which constricts dilated blood vessels, reducing swelling and mucus discharge. It is better to use this medicine in nasal drops or aerosol (“spray”) because the effect will be local. Taking any medication orally 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 the congestion worsens and the body becomes dependent on the drug.
Should I see a doctor if I have a cold?
In most cases it is unnecessary. But if the symptoms persist for more than a week, or if you have a high fever or an excessively runny nose, you could have contracted a bacterial infection in addition to having a cold. In such a case, go to a doctor immediately. Ask the doctor if you need antibiotics- which, by the way, are useless against colds.
Children under the age of 3, the elderly, and those with lung or heart disorders are at increased risk for life-threatening complications. You should notify your doctor at the first sign that it is more than just a cold.
The doctor must also determine if you have a cold or the flu. A mild case of the flu is often indistinguishable from a cold, and a serious cold might resemble the flu. Although both are characterized by sore throats, runny nose, and coughs, flu usually causes muscle aches, headaches, and high fever.
Antiviral drugs like rimantadine (Flumadine), amantadine (Symmetrel), or oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza), an inhaled medication, can speed recovery from the flu. However, they are effective only if taken soon after the onset of symptoms.
Can you do exercises when you have a common cold?
There is no evidence that exercise prolongs or increases a cold. Sure enough, some people say they feel better after exercising. But don’t push yourself too hard if you feel bad.
Can some popular home remedies help?
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 steam loosens the mucus. And teas made with ginger or other fragrant herbs help calm stomach upset.
Menthol – mixed with hot water to produce steam or rubbed as a gel on the upper lip – helps to clear blocked nasal passages.
Some claim that zinc lozenges, echinacea herb, and homeopathic products help treat the common cold. But until now, its effectiveness has not been proven.
What about those mechanical devices that inject hot air through the nose?
There is no evidence that these hair-dryer-type devices do much good. They may relieve some symptoms, but they won’t make the cold go away. You can get the same benefit by inhaling steam from a bowl of soup or hot water.
Maintain distance from sick people. Wash your hands frequently. Manage your stress level and stay calm. If you get sick stay home. You can take aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen to reduce pain and fever. Inhale vapors of water or menthol to soothe the nasal mucosa. Drink warm drinks and gargle with
salt to soothe the throat. If symptoms are severe call your doctor.
Interview with Dr. David A. J. Tyrell, MD from British Medical Research Council, Salisbury, England