Does Cold Medicine Work?

June 23rd 2015

Americans suffer from one billion colds annually, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. And although there is no “cure” for colds, which are caused by more than 200 different viruses, most don’t respond to antibiotics and usually take seven to 10 days to run their course.

If you pay close attention to the advertising and packaging of over-the-counter cold medicine, you will notice that these products claim to treat symptoms, as opposed to offering cures. But are these medicines as effective as they say they are, or are you better off saving your money for a stockpile of chicken noodle soup?

Over the counter cold medicines

According to the Food and Drug Administration, the active ingredients of over-the-counter cold medicine may include:

  • decongestants(for unclogging a stuffy nose)
  • expectorants (for loosening mucus so that it can be coughed up)
  • antihistamines (for sneezing and runny nose)
  • antitussives (for quieting coughs)

The FDA advises against using over-the-counter cold medicine for children under the age of two (note: this does not constitute medical advice. When seeking a diagnosis, contact your physician).

In 2014, U.S. News and World Report surveyed pharmacists about their preference for daytime remedies for cough, cold and flu. Seventeen percent of those surveyed turn toVicks DayQuil, which according to its website, temporarily relieves six symptoms: nasal congestion, cough due to minor throat and bronchial irritation, sore throat, headache, minor aches and pains, and fever.

Yet the “one size fits all” rule doesn’t necessarily apply when it comes to over-the-counter cold medicine. It is important to evaluate the symptoms of each cold on an individual basis.

“When patients come into the pharmacy looking for a quick fix to their cold, I usually begin asking which symptoms are bothering them the most to help narrow down which products might benefit them right away,” said Joey Mattingly, Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

In addition to the severity of symptoms, a patient’s medical history and the dosage of the OTC medicine need to be taken into account, said Mattingly.

“If a patient’s symptoms are pointing more to allergies, a low dose pain reliever may not harm the patient but it may be a waste of money,” Mattingly said. “If a decongestant is used at a much higher dose than necessary in a patient with pre-existing heart problems, we may actually put that patient at risk for more serious complications. If a semi-truck driver decides to use an OTC cough syrup that combines an antihistamine with alcohol before he heads out to work, then everyone on the highway may be in for an adverse effect of that medicine.”

“The point is,” Mattingly said, “OTC cold medicines can be very helpful for symptoms when used appropriately, but these medications are not free from risk. The size of the risk involved depends on the individual patient, so talk to your pharmacist first.”

The University of Maryland Medical Center offers information on various remedies for treating colds, as well as potential adverse side effects, including using a decongestant such as Sudafed or Afrin can actually worsen congestion if used for more than three days in a row. Parents should use caution when giving aspirin to children and teenagers recovering from flu-like symptoms, due to the risk of Reye’s syndrome.

Homeopathic and herbal remedies

Homeopathic products are not regulated by the FDA, and there’s little scientific evidence that a particular homeopathic or herbal remedy is completely safe and effective in treating symptoms and shortening lengths of colds.

Zinc lozenges or syrup may help reduce the duration of a cold if taken within 24 hours after the onset of symptoms, according to studies cited on the Mayo Clinic’s website; However, the University of Maryland Medical Center’s website notes that most studies that compared zinc to a placebo were flawed. Three of the four studies that were deemed reliable did not suggest any benefits were derived from zinc lozenges.

Even Vitamin C, the legendary elixir of immune-system boosting, might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Various studies indicate that taking Vitamin C may not actually allow the average person to dodge the mucus bullet, though once you do catch a cold, you may be sick for a shorter period of time if you’ve been taking Vitamin C regularly.

As for homeopathic remedies, despite the trendiness of certain products (like Airborne, which settled a class action lawsuit in 2008 over misleading advertising), they come with no guarantee of effectiveness, and little to no assurance of safety.

“Many homeopathic products have not been subjected to the high standards of rigorous scientific research,” said Mattingly. “Without large, randomized trials, a scientist cannot state definitively that a homeopathic product does or does not work. In the absence of quality research, pure testimonial evidence becomes the predominant source of information for these homeopathic remedies (which leads us back to the snake oil salesman of previous generations).”

“If I test a new drug on a group of healthy male subjects between the ages of 18 to 25 and see no adverse effects, does this mean that the drug is safe to use in females over the age of 65?” Mattingly said. “When a patient asks me about a specific homeopathic product I look at all the ingredients and any available evidence or speculation to date, but will always try to explain that we really ‘don’t know’ if the product will work safely.”

When you catch a cold, doctors and other experts generally agree on the most pedestrian of advice: drink plenty of fluids and get enough sleep. A vaporizer can help moisturize the air and honey can soothe a dry throat. And it’s not just an old wives tale: chicken noodle soup and other hot liquids can help loosen mucus and improve throat irritation.

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