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March 30, 2012 at 12:13 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Dr. VanWingen: My Perspective on Common Cold Treatments

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

This week I have a cold.

I hate the fact that I am ill and sadly, as most people know, there is no cure for the common cold. As a doctor, I often feel helpless as patients come to me (and my 21st century “bag of tricks”) only to hear that there is no definitive fix for their problem. Though the common cold can slow us down, we eventually emerge healthy once more.

In this blog I’ll share some insights on viral upper respiratory infections and how you might make things a bit more bearable as you wait for your body to conquer the infection.

About Those Cold Medicines

For years, various medications have been offered for treatment of cold symptoms, but it's important to keep in mind that just the symptoms are being treated here. Decongestants may dry the nose a bit. Antihistamines may help us sleep a bit better. Cough medicine may numb that tickle in the back of the throat. Ibuprofen or acetaminophen may bring our temperature back to normal. Unfortunately though, these quick fixes can come at a cost - a myriad of side effects. 

Decongestants can cause swings in blood pressure, anxiety and insomnia.

Cough medicines can leave a person feeling drunk. 

Yet, despite taking medicine, the duration of illness remains the same. The one exception here seems to be zinc-containing lozenges and nose sprays. While studies are mixed, many have shown that regular use of these products at the first sign of illness can shave a couple days off the duration of illness. The problem lies in the fact that they need to be used every couple hours, can give a metallic taste and can decrease a person’s sense of smell.

Symptoms - The Body's Medicine

Have you ever thought about why our body responds the way it does when invaded by an upper respiratory illness? All this misery is actually our defense mechanism at work!

The fever makes for difficult reproduction and spreading of the virus. These organisms tend to thrive at normal body temperature and suffer in a warmer environment. Coughing, sneezing and watery eyes help to flush the invaders out of our body. Even the snot serves a purpose - this gummy substance traps the organisms and pushes them out of the body dripping through the runny nose, blown into the Kleenex or swallowed into the acidy stomach. 

My advice? Embrace nature here. Tolerate the fever and get it all out - without the side effects of medication. Listen to your body. Sleep if you feel tired. Push the fluids to stay hydrated. This prevents and treats the achiness. It also keeps the mucous flowing. Try to keep a positive mental attitude. You WILL get better.

Still Determined To Do Something?

There are a few other remedies that are helpful and warrant mentioning.

The Neti Pot: The Neti Pot was fashionable in the early 1900’s and then fell out of style with pharmaceuticals coming on the market. The principle is simple: wash out the snot and the infection from the sinuses using saline poured into the nose. The solution goes in one nostril, through the sinuses and out the other. There is some technique here and people either love it or can’t stand it. My wife is a pro, but I feel like I am being water boarded. Studies on the Neti Pot are limited but have been favorable in regards to prevention of sinusitis, the possible negative consequence of ongoing nasal and sinus congestion. 

For more information on colds vs. sinus infections click here:

Honey: A wonderful study was performed comparing a dose of buckwheat honey to standard over-the-counter cough medicines.  Guess what!?  The honey out-performed the medicine! Bonus - it's natural and tastes a lot better than cough medicine. Hellolife sells the product Honey Don’t Cough which I recommend to my patients. Though infants under one should not take honey do to the risk of botulism, buckwheat honey is perfectly safe for children 1 and up.

Common Cold Prevention

Upper respiratory infections are most easy to deal with if they are prevented and hand washing is the most important factor in prevention. Other tips:

  • Try to avoid touching your mouth as much as possible without having washed your hands.
  • If you are sick, do your part to stay away from others.

Despite our best efforts, however, people still seem to get sick.  I spend my days around sick people but my weaknesses are those snotty, sneezy kids I go home to each night.  Intimacy comes at a price.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, the cold has always been around and as far as I can see, it will continue to be around. 

If you have a cold, be aware that some symptom-directed treatments and their side effects are worse than the symptoms treated. Knowing that symptoms will eventually improve on their own, why not just let your body do the fighting?

If you don't have a cold - count yourself luck and maintain a consciousness toward prevention during the cold season.

Photo Credit: emcadorette

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