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It's cough and cold season. The virus that causes cough and colds spreads rapidly in the workplace and classrooms. A parent or child may "bring home" the virus that spreads to other family members.
Unfortunately there is no cure for the common cold, only treatment of the symptoms. However, curtailing its spread may avoid the need of treatment. The virus spreads easily through person to person contact - shaking hands spreads the virus more than does kissing! Droplet spread from sneezing or coughing can also spread the virus.
The common cold is caused by a group of viruses known as the rhino viruses. Antibiotics are effective against bacterial - not viral - infections, thus, unless there is a secondary bacterial infection, antibiotics are not useful for coughs and colds. And, taking antibiotics for the common cold increases the risk of antibiotic resistance - not a good idea.
Numerous non-prescription remedies are available for the treatment of cough and cold symptoms. All of these products treat the symptoms making you more comfortable. There are five basic types of ingredients in cough and cold products - you have to read the fine print to determine what product contains what ingredients.
Antihistamines block histamine reactions in the body - runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes. More often antihistamines are used for allergies such as hay fever, but because some of the symptoms are similar, they may provide some relief from cough and cold symptoms. There are two types of antihistamines - sedating and non-sedating. The non sedating antihistamines are ideal for day time use when you need to be alert and the sedating one for bedtime use when you want to sleep uninterrupted by a drippy nose.
Decongestants alleviate congestion enabling you to breath better. Because sinuses often become congested with colds, decongestants are found in many sinus products. Decongestants are available as both tablets and nasal spray. The nasal sprays are associated with the risk for rebound congestion - you have to keep using increasing doses of the spray to keep your nasal passages open. People with certain medical conditions need to use decongestants with care, for example blood pressure control can be affected.
To control coughs antitussives or cough suppressants are included in many formulations. The most common cough suppressant is dextromethorphan or DM. Products are usually clearly labeled with "DM". Drowsiness can be a sided effect and because DM works through the nervous system to stop your cough, it can interact with other drugs that affect the nervous system, for example antidepressants.
Sometimes, in the case of a productive cough, you want to liquefy phlegm in order to cough it up more effectively. This is what expectorants do. An alternative to using an expectorant is increasing your fluid intake and/or humidifying the air. The increased moisture will help to liquefy phlegm.
Analgesics to relieve aches and pains and to reduce fever are included in many products. Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and acetylsalicylic acid or ASA are the most common. Children, including teenagers, should avoid ASA because of its link with Reye's syndrome - a rare, but deadly, condition affecting the nervous system and liver. The better choice for children is acetaminophen.
With the wide variety of cough and cold products choosing the one that is right for you can be difficult. Start by listing your symptoms, then look for the product that treats these symptoms, not ones that you don't have. For example, there is no point in taking a cough suppressant if you do not have a cough. One approach is to use combinations of single ingredient products, so that you can mix and match depending upon your symptoms.
Vitamin C and zinc are promoted for preventing and treatment of the common cold. It is unclear whether vitamin C is useful or not, but if you are considering it, you need to start it early - before you get a cold. Some of the studies looking at zinc seem promising, and it is the lozenges that appear to be most useful.
Lozenges and throat sprays may soothe a sore throat, however sucking on a hard candy or gargling with salt and water - 1; teaspoonful salt to 1; cup water - may just provide as much relief.
Whether you medicate your cold or not, you will want to get lots of rest, drink plenty of fluids, and make sure you have good nutrition. Generally a cold lasts about 7 to 10 days, so persevere. However, if the cold lasts longer or you experience symptoms that are not consistent with the common cold, you should seek medical attention.
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