How do you treat the common cold? Here’s what works and what doesn’t

TORONTO — Turning to your stash of vitamin C, Echinacea and vapour rub when you feel a cold coming on? A Canadian doctor who reviewed hundreds of studies on how to treat the common cold suggests these remedies may be a waste of time.

That also applies to ginseng, gargling salt water, homeopathy, nasal sprays and garlic supplements.

“People get frustrated when there’s not much they can do so they go looking. We believe in theories or possible naturopathic therapies that really don’t have a lot of research to back them in hopes that they do something,” Dr. Michael Allan told Global News.

“It’s born out of a hope that there could be something to prevent or improve your situation.”

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Allan is a family physician and professor at the University of Alberta. He also leads a team that conducts evidence-based research. The team summarizes evidence on key health issues and provides that information to thousands of doctors and other health care providers.

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Each year, adults typically get a cold about two to three times. Kids under two years old get sick about six times a year. The common cold includes a sore throat, stuffy nose, cough and general uneasiness that can run from one to three days to even lasting more than a week.

So what’s your best defence against the headaches, runny noses, and incessant coughing?

“The key for prevention are the things that mom would have told you: wash your hands and avoid making contact with sick people,” Allan told Global News.

“It’s all about the traditional maneuvers for keeping away the cold.”

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And if you’re already sick, Allan has advice for you, too.

There’s some research that suggests that adults could get a small or moderate benefit from a combination of antihistamines and decongestants with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. (Allan couldn’t name brand names in the case of drugs, but typical antihistamines include Benadryl or Sudafed, while acetaminophen is more commonly known as Tylenol and ibuprofen as Advil.)

Kids under five years old shouldn’t be taking any antihistamines — but if they’re dealing with aches, pains or a sore throat, acetaminophen or ibuprofen are good choices, the latter being the best option, Allan said.

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Honey was even a promising candidate to tame a child’s cold, but not for babies 12 months and under. For other youngsters, Allan said research pointing to 2.5 to 10 millilitres — or half a teaspoon to two teaspoons — of honey right before bed. It’ll help kids and parents sleep through the night.

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Zinc — if adults are willing to suck on the lozenges every few hours — also seemed to help but even then the research isn’t too strong. No one should be taking intranasal zinc sprays, though. Allan says those have been linked to unresolved issues and potentially harmful incidents.

Cold FX was looked at in five or six studies with inconsistent results across the board. Some research suggested that it worked while others said it didn’t. Allan can’t offer his bottom line advice because the results weren’t standardized.

Allan’s review spanned hundreds of individual studies, analyses and reviews.

There was some evidence that probiotics may help prevent colds, but the types of formulations varied, including pills and liquids, so a fair comparison was difficult to put together.

Cough medicines didn’t seem to benefit kids but they might offer a “slight” benefit in adults.

“Much more evidence now exists in this area, but many uncertainties remain regarding interventions to prevent and treat the common cold,” the authors wrote.

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Overall, Allan recommends good old fashioned bed rest and staying away from work or school so you don’t spread the germs.

Allan’s 3-part podcast series can be found here. His full study was published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

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