What the health: What is the best medication for a cold?

26 Jun 2019

Colds are usually harmless but can make us feel pretty miserable for a week or two and most healthy adults will contract up to three colds per year.

We often catch a cold when someone who is sick talks, coughs or sneezes and we breathe in virus-containing air droplets. It also spreads when we share contaminated objects such as pens or towels, and by hand-to-hand contact with someone who has a cold. If you then touch your mouth, nose or eyes, you’re quite likely to fall sick.

Symptoms for a cold normally appear one to three days after being exposed and may include a sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, sinus congestion, sneezing, mild headache/body ache, low-grade fever and generally feeling unwell. Not all people experience the same symptoms and there are lots of medications available to help.

Over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold preparations are normally used for temporary symptom relief when the illness prevents you from doing normal activities such as working and sleeping. If you need medication, target only symptoms that are causing the most trouble, and read the label carefully to avoid taking too much of any medication.

Cold medications can ease some symptoms in adults, however, there is no evidence that these products are safe or effective in children under the age of six. The only OTC medicines that can be used in this group are fever reducers or pain relievers such as paracetamol to make your child comfortable. For children aged six to eleven, medicines should only be given under the advice of a doctor, pharmacist or nurse practitioner. In children, it’s important to follow dosing guidelines carefully.

For adults, there are many cough and cold preparations that can help with symptoms. Many combine three or more ingredients and in most cases not all ingredients will be required to treat symptoms. A more sensible approach is to match symptoms with active ingredients, and this is where a pharmacist or doctor can provide advice. It is important to keep in mind that all medicines can cause unwanted side effects, particularly when overused or misused. Nasal decongestants for example can cause rebound congestion if used for more than three to five days, and certain cough medications can cause sedation.

Natural treatments like Vitamin C, Echinacea and Zinc are alternative remedies that may help with cold symptoms. Some studies show they may help shorten the duration or severity of cold symptoms however results are mixed. Like prescribed and OTC medicines, they may also interact with many other drugs and have the potential for harmful side effects, so it is important to talk to your doctor or pharmacist before considering the use of alternative remedies.

It’s tempting to try the latest treatment but there are other things that may help you feel better (besides medicines) such as getting enough rest, staying hydrated, using salt water gargles (for sore throats), sipping warm liquids (e.g. chicken soup) and adding moisture to air (via humidifier/vaporiser) to help ease congestion.

A final note is that antibiotics are often prescribed for common colds but are ineffective so should be avoided for colds or other viruses. If you have any questions about taking cough and cold preparations, you should discuss this with your doctor or pharmacist.

dr meng-wong-taingAUTHOR: Dr Meng-Wong Taing (Wong) is a Lecturer at UQ's School of Pharmacy, and an Affiliate Lecturer at the Mater Research Institute. His current research themes have a strong commitment in facilitating extended roles for pharmacists and other healthcare providers to improve patient outcomes. Wong is particularly interested in further developing evidence for pharmacists working in collaborative oral healthcare models in Australia.