Can you shorten the duration of a cold?
Sniffling and sneezing? A cure for the common cold has not yet been found, but it is possible to shorten the duration of those annoying symptoms.
Getting the common cold is part and parcel of being human. And just about every person has a cold remedy in which they believe – from sipping ginger tea to chewing on raw garlic cloves.
Up until fairly recently, we didn’t know whether it's really possible to shorten the duration of the common cold with an over-the-counter remedy. Now we know it is.
What does it mean to have a cold?
Over a hundred different viruses can cause the common cold, which is an infectious disease that affects the upper respiratory system. The rhinovirus, the most common culprit, is responsible for 30% to 50% of all colds.
Everyone has experienced the most common cold symptoms at some stage during their lives – adults on average two to four times a year and children eight to ten times a year. These symptoms include watery eyes, sneezing, a runny nose, nasal congestion, a cough and a sore throat.
Whereas flu is usually accompanied by a high fever, a cold is not. Colds also don’t lead to significant fatigue, but they do cause a measure of discomfort.OTC medication, antibiotics and the common cold
Many people use over-the-counter (OTC) medication to relieve the symptoms of a common cold. These are usually decongestants, anti-inflammatories, painkillers, antihistamines or a combination – medicines that help you feel better, but which don’t shorten the duration of the cold.
Antibiotics are, of course, ineffective in fighting the common cold, as it’s a viral infection and not a bacterial one. Your doctor may, however, prescribe antibiotics if your cold is accompanied by a secondary bacterial infection (e.g. ear infection or sinusitis).
Zinc and the common cold
In the last few years, several studies have indicated that zinc lozenges shorten the duration of cold symptoms in adults, but not in children. A meta-analysis of these studies was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2012.
It’s thought that zinc, especially when taken at the first signs of a cold, interferes with the ability of the rhinovirus to multiply. The zinc appears to shorten the duration of the symptoms in adults by between two and three days, while the most common side effects include an unpleasant taste in the mouth and nausea.
Doctors advise taking zinc gluconate or acetate lozenges that provide 9-24mg of zinc per dose every two hours, and to start using them as soon as you start experiencing symptoms.
Probiotics and the common cold
Another remedy for the common cold is probiotics. The exact mechanism of action is unknown, but it’s thought that probiotics might stimulate antibody production and increase the production of white blood cells, according to the American Pharmacists Association (APA).
In a recent meta-analysis of several studies, published by the APA, the effect of taking probiotics on the duration of the common cold was evaluated. It was found that, with probiotic treatment lasting three weeks to seven months, the participants experienced a reduction in the duration of their symptoms of between half a day and one day. The results also suggested that there was a lower absenteeism rate from work owing to having a cold among those taking probiotics.
Beat the cold this winter by taking a probiotic supplement (look for products that contain Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, Lactobacillus acidophilus and/or Bifidobacterium animalis) and/or eating more probiotic-rich foods such as yoghurt, kombucha tea, miso, tempeh and kefir.
More tips to beat the common cold
Apart from taking zinc lozenges and probiotics, there are other steps you can take to get back on your feet again if you've got a cold. The Merck Manuals recommend the following:
- Rest at home, especially if you have a fever.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Inhale steam.
If needed, take symptom-relieving over-the-counter medications, such as decongestants, antihistamines, cough syrups and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication. Remember that several of these could cause drowsiness.