Today there are a staggering number of products on drugstore shelves touting their cold-fighting prowess. But who should you believe? And if these products do relieve you of your symptoms, at what cost? Here we outline the most common and often misunderstood medications used for treating cold and cough symptoms.
First of all, keep in mind that over-the-counter (OTC) medications can only provide temporary relief for your symptoms.
The virus cannot be treated and these medications will not prevent, get rid of, or even shorten the duration of a cold.
Remember, also, that most medications have side effects and should not be taken for prolonged periods of time.
Always be sure to read the labels of any medications you use to ensure that you are taking them correctly.
Over-the-counter Medicinal Remedies
Medications that fall into this designation are also referred to as antitussives. Their purpose is to suppress the natural cough reflex that causes us to cough.
A cough suppressant commonly found in OTC cold medications is dextromethorphan. This medication should be taken with prudence and only after carefully reading the instructions on bottle.
Side effects can include nausea, vertigo and anxiety, while an overdose may result in breathing difficulty and hallucinations.
These drugswork by counteracting histamine, the chemical that produces common symptoms like sneezing and a runny or stuffy nose.
Histamine is a chemical that causes symptoms like a runny nose, sneezing and congestion.
Antihistamines, then, block this chemical from being released, which prevents or alleviates these symptoms.
Antihistamines are grouped into first-generation and second-generation classifications.
First-generation antihistamines such as diphenhydramine and chlorpheniramine, have a sedating effect on consumers, but are generally considered effective in terms of easing coughing, sneezing, congestion and nasal discharge.
The drowsiness caused by these drugs is powerful and so they are often taken as nighttime medications.
Second-generation antihistamines like loratadine and cetirizine, do not produce the same sedating effect as first-generation drugs and are generally similarly effective.
The purpose of these drugs is to help you clear out all the “gunk” in your chest. These drugs thin out the discharge and help you to cough it up.
A common expectorant found in cold syrups and other medications is guaifenesin.
There are few side effects associated with this type of medication, but care should always be taken to read all instructions and to avoid overuse.
This class of drugs is useful for alleviating the aches and pains associated with a common cold, and – depending on the type of pain reliever – for reducing a fever.
Acetaminophen is a common pain reliever/fever reducer to be used by adults and teens according to manufacturer’s instructions.
Ibuprofen is another widely used pain reliever and anti-inflammatory.
Some doctors approve the use of both acetaminophen and ibuprofen simultaneously if your pain is extreme, because they affect the body in different ways, but you should always consult a doctor before mixing medications.
It is important to take special care with pain relievers to not overdose or take the medication regularly for a prolonged period of time.
These products are used to relieve symptoms like congestion and a stuffy nose. Saline solutions are recommended for adults, children and infants alike.
Nasal decongestant sprays (not saline solutions) are unfortunately known to cause a rebound effect sometimes, making the congestion even worse once you stop using the spray.
Cold medicines often contain the essential mineral, zinc, because of its reported (though not definitively proven) efficacy in relieving symptoms and potentially even decreasing the severity or duration of a cold.
Zinc is a mineral we consume every day, which occurs naturally in many foods we eat, like eggs, meat and seafood.
Upping your zinc intake by taking zinc lozenges when you are sick may not necessarily help, but, in moderation, it won’t hurt either.
Vitamin C is said to be a natural immune system booster and a great remedy. However, this isn’t necessarily true.
What Vitamin C does seem to do is shorten the duration of your symptoms. If you have some on hand, this is an option that will not hurt you to try.
Salt water gargles
Dissove a bit of salt into a glass of water and gargle. This can help to temporary relieve the pain of a sore throat. Do this as often as you think is necessary.
Take a hot bath or shower. The steam from this will help with your runny nose and congestion, and should alleviate your sore throat a bit as well.
If you are dizzy, it may not be a good idea to shower because the steam can make you dizzier – try taking a bath instead.
Rub a mentholated salve, such as Vicks, on your chest or under your nose.
This remedy will help to clear your air passages and make it easier for you to breathe.
Menthol also tends to have a relaxing effect, and it may help you to fall asleep.
The most important thing to remember is to get a lot of rest when you are sick.
If you are spending too much energy on other activities, your body will not have sufficient energy to fight off your cold.
Give yourself a few days to get better.
It is important to remember to keep yourself hydrated. Your body needs a lot of fluids to be able to fight off the sickness.
Drink at least eight glasses of fluid a day – this fluid can come from water, herbal teas, or soups.
Try to avoid caffeine and alcohol until your cold passes.
What not to do
Do not take unnecessary antibiotics
These drugs are useful in killing bacteria, not viruses.
Do not take antibiotics unless your doctor has diagnosed an infection such as strep throat, which requires treatment with these drugs.
Taking antibiotics when all you have is a cold, is not only ineffective, but is also a leading cause of the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Do not give over-the-counter cold medications to children under two years of age
These medications can have serious side effects for children under two years of age. Some drug manufacturers suggest that their products shouldn’t be used by children until they reach the age of four. These side effects can be dangerous and potentially life threatening, so don’t take the risk.