About Colds: Treatment and Prevention

We haven't yet found a way to kill the viruses that cause the common cold. Some people ask their doctors for antibiotics, but these are completely useless against any virus. These medications work only if you get a bacterial infection on top of the cold.

Since there's no cure, a combination of coping strategies and medication can at least keep symptoms from getting worse.

  • Bed rest for a day or two can help you feel better. While it won't clear up the cold any faster, staying in bed will avoid spreading it to others.
  • Keep comfortably warm and drink plenty of fluids. Hot fluids (such as chicken broth) can cut down on congestion.
  • For a sore throat, a warm salt-water gargle may help. Humidifiers can keep the air moist in an effort to soothe coughs. The extra vapour, cold or hot, can also help loosen mucus in the chest.

Drugs can be used to relieve cold symptoms, but they won't make the cold go away any faster. These include:

  • Nasal decongestants, in pill, spray or drops. People with heart disease, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, diabetes, glaucoma, or prostate enlargement, or who are pregnant or breast-feeding, should talk to a doctor before taking these medications. You shouldn't use these products for more than three days because of the possibility of "rebound congestion," a condition where decongestants actually make you more congested.
  • Cough suppressants, which usually contain dextromethorphan. These are readily available as over-the-counter medicines. Codeine and hydrocodone can also keep a cough at bay, and are available by prescription from your doctor.
  • Expectorants, which loosen congestion.
  • Antihistamines, which have a drying effect on a runny nose but can actually make congestion worse. The benefits of using antihistamines for a cold are questionable.

Health Canada has issued a health advisory warning people to avoid using all cough and cold products containing phenylpropanolamine. Phenylpropanolamine, an ingredient used in these products as a decongestant, has been shown to slightly increase the risk of having a hemorrhagic stroke. Although the risk of hemorrhagic stroke is very low, it is a very serious condition. Therefore, the benefits of using phenylpropanolamine to treat a cold are not considered to be worth the small increased risk.

While vitamin C has been recommended to prevent the common cold, studies looking at this claim haven't been able to prove its benefit. The herb echinacea is also supposed to be able to prevent and cure colds, but there are few scientific studies to support this.

The best way to prevent the common cold is to have just had it. The good news is that you'll be immune to that strain for the next several months. The second-best way is to stay away from people with colds. Proper exercise, rest, and nutrition will help keep your body's defence system strong and able to fend off cold-causing viruses.

Learn more about Cough and Flu