Common cold treatments

Nothing will cure a cold but treatments can help to relieve some of the unpleasant symptoms of the common cold.

Some of the symptoms of the common cold that can be relieved by over-the-counter products are:

  • aches and pains;
  • fever;
  • cough;
  • runny nose; and
  • nasal congestion (blocked nose).

Cough and cold medicines should not be used by children younger than 6 years. For older children, always check with your doctor or pharmacist whether the product is safe for your child.

Take care to carefully read the ingredients of any cold or flu formulations that you take so that you don’t double up on ingredients, especially paracetamol, ibuprofen or antihistamines. Many combination cold and flu products contain a painkiller, a decongestant and an antihistamine. If you take a combination product and then also take additional medicines, you risk overdosing on some types of medicines.

Decongestants

A blocked nose (nasal congestion) is a common symptom of the common cold. Decongestants can help relieve a blocked or stuffy nose. They are available as nasal sprays or tablets. The nasal sprays should not be used for more than 4-5 consecutive days, otherwise rebound congestion can occur.

You should avoid decongestants if you have high blood pressure, heart problems, hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), glaucoma, diabetes, kidney disease, enlarged prostate gland or liver disease. Also, people taking MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor) antidepressants must not take decongestants.

Some decongestants are not safe if you are breastfeeding.

If you take a medicine that contains both decongestants and antihistamines (for example, some day and night cold medicines), you should take care if drinking alcohol or driving.

Side effects of decongestants include dry mouth, headache and feeling sick. Rarely, they may cause insomnia.

Nasal spray decongestants

Topical decongestants, which come in the form of a nasal spray, commonly include ingredients such as ephedrine, oxymetazoline, phenylephrine, tramazoline, and xylometazoline. There are numerous brands available containing any one of these ingredients.

Oral decongestants

Decongestant tablets may include ingredients such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines can help relieve a runny nose and reduce sneezing and also help with watery eyes.

They may have side-effects such as drowsiness, dry mouth, dizziness, and headaches.

Cough medicines

There are different medicines available for the treatment of cough, depending on whether you have a dry, irritating cough or a wet, productive cough. Cough and cold medicines should not be given to children younger than 6 years old, and you should ask for advice from a doctor or pharmacist before giving these medicines to children aged 6 to 11 years.

Cough suppressants, or antitussives, can be used for dry, non-productive coughs and often contain opioid medicines such as codeine. It is important not to suppress a productive or wet cough, as clearing the mucous is important. Expectorants or mucolytics can be used for productive coughs.

Side effects associated with cough medicines can include nausea, constipation and drowsiness.

Pain relievers

Pain relievers (analgesic medicines) can be used to treat aches and pains and fever. Pain relievers commonly used in the treatment of colds include paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen.

You should be careful that children aged 16 years and younger do not take aspirin or combination products that contain aspirin. This is because aspirin can cause a serious condition called Reye’s syndrome in children.

Combination products

There are different types of combination products available. Combination products usually contain a decongestant. Other medicines in combination products include pain relievers, antihistamines and cough suppressants.

Always check the ingredients of cold and flu formulations so that you don’t double up on ingredients, especially paracetamol, ibuprofen or antihistamines. Many combination products contain a pain reliever, a decongestant and an antihistamine.

Complementary medicines

There is a general lack of evidence from clinical studies for the safety and effectiveness of most complementary medicines in the treatment of the common cold.

Always check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any complementary medicines – like all medicines, complementary treatments can cause side effects and interact with your other medicines. Some complementary therapies are not recommended for people with certain medical conditions.

Vitamin C

There is evidence that vitamin C taken regularly may slightly reduce the duration and severity of cold symptoms, but it does not seem to prevent colds.

Vitamin C is generally considered to be safe. However, high doses of vitamin C can cause nausea, diarrhoea and abdominal cramps.

Zinc

Taking zinc by mouth (lozenges, tablets or syrup) at the onset of common cold symptoms can reduce the severity and duration of symptoms.

Side effects associated with oral zinc include nausea and other gastrointestinal symptoms. Zinc lozenges are associated with bad taste and nausea. Zinc that is taken through the nose (using swabs or gels) should not be used, as it has been shown to cause long-lasting, sometimes permanent, loss of the sense of smell.

Echinacea

There is currently no conclusive evidence to support the effectiveness of echinacea in the treatment of colds. Allergic reactions and rashes have been reported among some people using echinacea.

Self-help

The following self-help measures can help you feel better.

  • Drink plenty of fluids but avoid alcohol and caffeine.
  • Get plenty of rest. Take time off work or school if possible – it will help you feel better and reduce the chance of passing the infection on to others.
  • For a sore throat, try gargling a salt solution, sucking on ice cubes or drinking warm water with honey and lemon.
  • Salt water nasal sprays or drops can help relieve nasal congestion.
  • Steam inhalations can help relieve nasal congestion and coughing, but care should be taken to avoid burning yourself with hot water or steam. Menthol, camphor or eucalyptus can be added to the water.
Last Reviewed: 8 April 2014
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References

1. National Prescribing Service (NPS). What are the medicines and treatments for a cold? (published 10 May 2013). http://www.nps.org.au/conditions-and-topics/conditions/respiratory-problems/respiratory-tract-infections/for-individuals/conditions/common-cold/for-individuals/medicines-and-treatments (accessed Mar 2014).
2. Rhinosinusitis (revised October 2009; amended October 2012, June 2013). In: eTG complete. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Limited; 2013 Nov. http://online.tg.org.au/complete/ (accessed Mar 2014).
3. NHS Choices. Decongestant medication. Created September 2013. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/decongestant-drugs/pages/introduction.aspx (accessed Sept 2013).
4. MayoClinic.com. Common cold (updated 17 Apr 2013). http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/basics/definition/con-20019062 (accessed Mar 2014).
5. NHS Choices. Common cold (updated 19 Jun 2013). http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Cold-common/Pages/Treatment.aspx (accessed Mar 2014).
6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Symptom relief (updated 4 Nov 2013). http://www.cdc.gov/getsmart/antibiotic-use/symptom-relief.html (accessed Mar 2014).
7. NPS Medicinewise. Types of cough medicines (published 29 Nov 2012). http://www.nps.org.au/medicines/respiratory-system/cough-and-cold-medicines/for-individuals/types-of-cough-medicines (accessed Mar 2014).
8. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). The flu, the common cold and complementary health approaches (updated April 2013). http://nccam.nih.gov/health/flu/ataglance.htm (accessed Mar 2014).
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