If cold symptoms are the body’s immune response to fight a cold virus, do cold remedies that reduce symptoms hinder the body’s ability to fight off the virus and actually increase the cold’s duration?

Answered by Alan Jensen, Registered Pharmacist

Many medications can be used to treat the symptoms of a cold or flu. I am going to restrict my comments to the five categories of medications found in most over the counter cold and flu remedies. They are pain and fever reducers, nasal decongestants, antihistamines, cough suppressants and expectorants.

Pain and fever reducers, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen, lowers fever, which is the only symptom of a cold that is a direct immune response. They also reduce body aches, headache and sore throat which are all symptoms of a cold but not an immune response. If there is any evidence that reducing the fever prolongs the duration of a cold, it is minor and would not be considered significant.

Nasal decongestants such as pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine constrict blood vessels in swollen or congested nasal passages that make breathing difficult. Use of decongestants have shown no evidence of making a cold last longer.

Antihistamines such as diphenhydramine, loratadine, cetirizine, or fexofenadine help to block the effect of histamine released by the body in response to the tissue damage done by the cold virus. Histamine causes a runny nose and watery eyes. The thought that drying up these secretions will make the cold last longer also has no real evidence behind it.

Cough suppressants such as dextromethorphan help to suppress a dry or tickling cough. In the event of a cold that produces mucus in the throat and lungs, suppressing such a cough would seem to be counterproductive and tend to prolong the cold. However, cough suppressants are not very effective in suppressing a productive or loose cough and don’t really encourage the buildup of mucus, so they don’t make a cold last longer either.

Expectorants such as guaifenesin help to make mucus more viscous (or runny) helping your body cough it out and get rid of it. Because of its nature, expectorants will not make a cold last longer.

Although I stated that each ingredient in over the counter cold and flu medications do not make a cold last longer, the fact is that yes, they may make a cold last longer and actually help to spread a cold. Since these medications may make us feel better the tendency is to take the medication then go to work, school or church instead of staying home to rest and drink fluids which will make the cold go away faster. As we are out in public, carrying an active virus, we tend to spread the cold more.

Cover Your Cough

One of the most effective ways to stop the spread of germs is to cover your cough.

When an infected person coughs or sneezes, their cold or influenza virus becomes airborne and survives for approximately one hour in the air. If another person inhales the air carrying the cold or flu droplets, they can catch the virus.

The best way to cover your cough or sneeze is to grab a tissue and cough into it, then immediately throw it away.  Make sure you wash your hands or use some sanitizer afterwards in case any germs got onto your hands.

If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or elbow, not your hands.

Airborne Droplets

Materials: Bubble liquid with wand, box of tissues, friends

  • Pick a friend to be the bubble blower.  They will need to stand in front of everyone else.
  • Everyone else sits on the floor. Tell them that each time a bubble lands on them, they have become infected with an airborne illness.
  • Tell the bubble blower to start blowing bubbles. He represents an ill person sneezing into the air. How many friends become infected with no protection from the droplets?
  • Give everyone a tissue and tell them if they  stop the bubbles with the tissue, they will not get infected.  When the bubble blower blows  (sneezes) again, how many friends become infected? Did the tissues help?

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