Common Cold Treatments That Can Actually Make You Sick!
What Works and What Doesn’t?
Whether it’s old wives’ tales or misunderstood science, there are plenty of myths out there about how to treat or avoid the common cold.
The problem? Many of those gems of wisdom can actually make you sicker. What really works to help you get through the misery of a cold, and which advice should you avoid?
Let’s separate the good advice from suggestions that just might prolong your misery.
“A hot toddy is just the thing to get rid of the sniffles.”
FALSE: That hot toddy (whiskey, lemon, and hot water) is not going to get rid of your cold. Alcohol hand sanitizers may help destroy the cold virus on hands, but drinking alcohol doesn’t do the same. Alcohol dehydrates, drying your mucous membranes, causing discomfort and making it harder to fight the virus. A shot of alcohol might burn away a coating in your throat, but the resulting dehydration makes your cold last longer.
BETTER OPTION: Drink plenty of fluids like water, orange juice or mint tea. Keeping yourself hydrated will help you feel better.
“Zinc can shorten the length of a cold.”
TRUE: Actually, several studies have shown that taking zinc supplements at the first signs of a cold can actually shorten the duration of symptoms by about a day and a half in adults. (Science, et al., 2012)
PROBLEM: There can be nasty side effects to taking zinc supplements. Zinc can leave a bad taste in the mouth and can cause nausea. No beneficial effects are seen in children, so it’s not helpful for them. Some supplements, most notably Zicam—a nasal spray of zinc gluconate—can actually damage the tissue inside the nose so much that you lose your sense of smell, possibly permanently. (Lim, et al., 2009)
“If you don’t treat the symptoms, your body will fight the cold faster.”
FALSE: Some people advocate suffering through the runny nose, muscle aches, sore throat and fever without taking any medications, but this does not shorten the length of a cold. The cold virus is replicating inside of your cells, and the mucus of a runny nose is not flushing out the virus, it just spreads the virus to other people.
BETTER OPTION: Treat your symptoms to feel comfortable. Anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen for fever and body aches, antihistamines for the runny nose, and cough suppressant for a cough can help you get some rest and even prevent you spreading your cold to others.
“Take a ton of vitamin C. That will cure anything!”
MAYBE: Vitamin C has been claimed to fight everything from the common cold to cancer. After falling out of scientific fashion for years, newer studies seem to show that taking vitamin C during the first symptoms of a cold may reduce symptoms. Overall, vitamin C seems to have little effect in preventing the onset of a cold or reducing its symptoms, unless you are an athlete exposed to very cold temperatures. (Douglas, et al., 2007)
PROBLEMS: Large doses of vitamin C may cause diarrhea. For people with iron-related conditions, vitamin C may enhance the absorption of iron and cause iron toxicity.
“Wow, I feel so much better after taking those meds. I’m going to run a couple of errands in the car. I’ll be fine.”
FALSE: Be careful about taking antihistamines for that stuffy nose and then driving. Antihistamines really do sedate you, and it can definitely affect your driving. Older antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and newer drugs like loratadine (Claritin) alike can cause drowsiness. Drivers have been pulled over for erratic driving while on these medications, so be careful.
BE SMART: Don’t drive while on powerful antihistamines, especially at higher doses and while fighting an infection. Take only the recommended dose. If you have a heart condition or are at risk for cardiac disease, talk to your doctor before taking antihistamines – certain types have been linked to heart damage. (Yap & Camm, 2002)
“Over-the-counter cold medicines are perfectly safe to take with other meds.”
FALSE: Drug interactions can occur even with over the counter medications. If you take a decongestant that includes drugs like pseudoephedrine, phenylephrine or oxymetazoline in a tablet, a liquid or a nasal spray, there can be some serious side effects. If you are on certain antidepressants there can be severe interactions. According to the Mayo Clinic, anyone with high blood pressure should also be careful of decongestants. (Mayo Clinic, 2010)
SAFE BET: Look at any cold medications, especially combination medications, and check the warning labels. If you take other medications regularly or have other health conditions, be sure to ask the pharmacist or your doctor about possible interactions.
“I swear by Echinacea!”
TRUE: Some studies have shown that extracts of the Echinacea purpura plant can reduce the length of a cold by about 1.4 days. (Shah, et al., 2007)
However, there are also studies that show no benefit at all.
PROBLEM: Some people with allergies to plants like ragweed have shown strong allergic reactions to Echinacea. Also, some preparations may be contaminated with molds and other allergens. It is important to be careful taking herbal supplements if you have known allergies to pollen and weeds.
“Grandma’s chicken soup is my cure-all for any cold.”
TRUE: Many cultures swear by the curative power of chicken soup, and it looks like this myth is true. Studies have shown that chicken soup may have anti-inflammatory properties that help cold symptoms. (Rennard, et al., 2000)Even if that’s not the case, warm liquids and protein will certainly help you stay hydrated.
PROBLEM: Many canned chicken soups are loaded with excess sodium. High salt content food can actually dehydrate you, making you feel worse when you are fighting a cold. Try low-salt brands or have someone kind make you some homemade broth.
Common Sense Helps the Common Cold
The best tips for getting over your cold are to drink plenty of fluids to be comfortable and get plenty of rest.
Water, juice, clear broth, and warm water with lemon and honey can really help loosen congestion. Tea is fine, but decaffeinated is best.
A saltwater gargle can help a sore throat better than a lot of medications.
Saline drops can reduce stuffiness and congestion without the side effects of decongestants.
Humidity helps. Steam in the shower or use a well-cleaned humidifier in small doses.