The best way to protect yourself from the common cold is to maintain a strong immune system. Make fruits and vegetables a regular part of your diet in order to keep your system stocked with vitamins and nutrients. Exercise for 30 minutes a day, three to five days a week, to keep your circulatory and respiratory systems operating at peak efficiency. Common sense helps too; avoid contact with cold sufferers, as well as their silverware, beverages, and towels whenever possible.
There are no specific remedies for the various viruses that cause colds, but there are over-the-counter medications that, if taken properly, may help relieve some of the symptoms.
- Cough suppressants can help control dry coughs that hinder sleeping and talking. These are best taken at bedtime. At other times, you should allow yourself to cough in order to clear mucus and germs from your throat and lungs.
- Decongestants can relieve nasal congestion, but should only be used for five days or less. After five days, your body's own defenses may react to decongestants by creating even more mucus.
- Ibuprofen reduces the aches that accompany a cold, but be aware that aspirin or acetaminophen may increase congestion.
- Multi-purpose cold remedies offer relief from a variety of symptoms, but be careful, you may be overtreating your cold. Avoid using these medications for children under 13; even when designed for pre-teens, these preparations aren't particularly effective, and the drowsiness they cause can make matters worse.
Ronald C. Brown, MD, FACP., is the Vice President of Medical Programs for Oxford Health Plans. He is a graduate of Yale University School of Medicine and was trained in internal medicine at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. Dr. Brown is a board-certified internist.
Alternative medicine providers favor the same measures for preventing colds that conventional providers recommend-proper nutrition, a regular exercise program, and common sense. Beyond that, there is evidence from Swedish researchers that taking a sauna twice a week can stave off colds, perhaps because the heat in a sauna keeps cold germs from reproducing.
- Echinacea, taken at the first sign of a cold, can decrease its intensity and reduce recovery time. Echinacea seems to stimulate the immune system, and because it contains berberine, a natural antibiotic, it might help ward off bacterial infections that often appear after colds.
- Drinking hot liquids, such as tea with lemon and honey, also seems to help. A hot tea of fresh, crushed ginger root seems to work for many people and has a long history in Asian healing traditions. Ginger may help to balance your body energetically as well.
- Most people love various forms of moist heat because it's soothing and may help to mobilize mucus and secretions. Some people like to incorporate aromatherapy by adding eucalyptus, lavender, cedar, or lemon to the steam.
- Hot soups are often used to treat colds. The hot-and-spicy Thai soup called tom yum is delicious and soothing. The red pepper, lemongrass and ginger all act as gentle herbal remedies.
- Some research indicates that Chinese herbal remedies such as yin chao and gan mao ling seem to help. Still, people should take Chinese herbal remedies only under the supervision of an experienced Chinese medicine practitioner. This is a complex field that does not lend itself to self-prescribing.
- New research suggests that zinc may significantly decrease the duration of a cold. While zinc lozenges can produce unpleasant side effects-bad taste, nausea, and an irritated mouth and throat-a new zinc nasal spray may fight the virus without such drawbacks. However, more studies need to be performed to verify the spray's effectiveness as a cold remedy. (As with any other over-the-counter cold remedy, be very cautious about using zinc medications, especially when caring for your child.)
James Dillard, MD, DC, CAc, is the founding Medical Director for Oxford Health Plans' Complementary and Alternative Medicine program and is chairman of the Oxford Chiropractic Advisory Board. He is a board-certified medical doctor, a doctor of chiropractic, and a certified medical acupuncturist.