Common Cold

Cure for the Common Cold?

Every few months another fad cure comes out for the common cold. Unfortunately, none so far has held up to critical scientific testing. The latest fad, the zinc lozenge, was shown by a study in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) to be completely ineffective in relieving any of 9 symptoms of the common cold in children. Even drugs claiming only "temporary relief of symptoms" such as antihistamines and decongestants have not been shown to work in children under 6 years of age.




Getting virus infections (like colds) is what keeps our immune systems in top working condition!

Why is it so difficult to get a cure for an illness that affects all of us so often? Maybe we should look at it a different way. Throughout our millions of years of evolution, the features of our lives and health that have stuck with us, have done so because they give us the advantage of survival. Perhaps susceptibility to colds is one of these survival advantages.

There are thousands of viruses in our environment, that our immune systems must constantly deal with. Maybe it is an advantage for us to have harmless cold viruses around to "practice on" every few months to keep the immune system in tip-top shape. Imagine an army that never ran drills or any kind of exercises, then suddenly had to go out and fight a war. Would they be successful?

Care for Colds in Children

How can we help relieve cold symptoms in our children? Often children get miserable with colds, and we can help them in a few ways. A pain reliever like Tylenol® or Advil® can help, but use these drugs carefully according to directions. Every year children die from overdoses of these drugs.

Water vapor from a humidifier or vaporizer can be soothing to air passages. Cool mist is safer because the child cannot be burned if she touches it. However, the cool mist does not sterilize itself like a vaporizer, so you must clean it often to prevent mold and bacteria from growing in it.

Cold and cough medicines have very little advantage over placebo, and have side effects like dry mouth and drowsiness. If you avoid these medicines, you will be more alert to concentrate on other projects to keep your mind off your cold symptoms. That is the best relief I have found.

The old time remedy of honey (1 tsp for under 6, and 2 tsp every 4-6 hours for over 6 years of age) has been shown to be more effective for cold and cough symptoms than over-the-counter medication. Honey is fairly safe, EXCEPT under 1 year of age, as babies can get botulism from eating honey. Do not give honey to a child under 12 months of age.

Fever is common with a cold, and is one of the body’s defenses against viruses. If a fever continues for several days, it may be a sign of complications of the cold, such as pneumonia or ear infection. After 3 days of fever, you should take your child to the doctor. You should go sooner if there are other worrisome signs like wheezing or rapid breathing. If a child seems very ill the first day of a cold, with high fevers, and it is during "flu season" (December to March), you should call the doctor right away to get a flu test. If you identify flu in the first few days, there is still time to take an anti-viral medication. If you wait over 2 days, it will be too late to use flu medication. See the Health-byte onFlu.

So-called "fever reducers" are not intended to reduce fever.

The fever itself is not dangerous. It is just a sign to watch for. If your child feels fine and has a high fever, there is no need to give medicine. The "fever reducer" (such as Tylenol® etc) is just for comfort. It is also important to give lots of fluids to children with fevers to avoid dehydration. To learn more about treating fever, read the Health-byte called"Fever is Good for You".

Children often get chest congestion and cough with a cold. This is just the virus affecting the bronchial tubes in your chest. The cells in the bronchial tubes produce mucus to kill the viruses, and you have to cough the mucus out. Kids usually just swallow it, which is fine because the stomach acid digests it along with the viruses. We can help kids (and adults) to cough up the mucus by doing "percussion treatments" on the chest and back. Also called chest physiotherapy, this consists of patting the rib cage with your cupped hand, all over the lung areas. A few minutes every hour is usually enough time. If the chest muscles feel sore, you might need to be more gentle with your percussion treatments.

Antibiotics should be avoided if you have a cold!

It is important to avoid taking antibiotics when you have a cold. Antibiotics have absolutely zero effect on the cold viruses, but taking them would make your body's own bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Later on, you might catch a dangerous bacterial infection, like pneumonia, and the dangerous germs would learn to be resistant from your own germs. In that case, antibiotics would not work, and you would be at greater risk of dying from a possibly treatable disease.

What about over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough medicines? In October 2007, the FDA advisory panels for pediatrics and nonprescription drugs voted not to recommend OTC cold medicine for any children under 6. They based their recommendation on several reports of serious side effects of these drugs in children, and the fact that there are no scientific studies showing that these medicines actually work in children. Only one study has shown that anything works for relief of cough and cold symptoms in children, and that showed that honey is effective while dextromethorphan is not effective in reducing cough. (Arch Ped and Adol Med, 2007)

Is there anything we can do to prevent complications of viral colds, such as ear infections and pneumonia? There are not any medications known to prevent complications, but we do know that children exposed to tobacco smoke have a much higher risk of complications. Completely eliminating any cigarette smoke from ALL ROOMS of your house is the best way to prevent complications.