Sniffling, sneezing, coughing, wheezing—it’s cold and flu season in St. Louis. It’s called the ‘common cold’ because it is, indeed, perhaps the most common illness experienced by both adults and children each year.
“The common cold is usually caused by a virus, most often a rhinovirus,” explains Dr. Lauren Wilfling, a Mercy Clinic family physician. “It typically lasts about five to seven days, and can cause symptoms, including nasal congestion, runny nose, low-grade fever, cough, sneezing, sore throat, headache, muscle aches and fatigue.”
Antibiotics, which combat bacterial infections rather than viral ones, are not effective against colds. “The only treatment is to help control the symptoms so that you feel better until the cold runs its course,” says Dr. Elizabeth Lucas, medical director of St. Luke’s Urgent Care Centers and St. Luke’s Convenient Care.
Over-the-counter medicines should be chosen to alleviate specific symptoms. For instance, acetaminophen or ibuprofen eases body aches, headache and fever. Guaifenesin helps thin out mucous that causes coughing. Dry-coughing can be controlled with cough suppressants that contain dextromethorphan (but are not recommended for children). Nasal drainage can be treated with Benadryl, Claritin, Zyrtec or Allegra, while nasal congestion improves with Sudafed (pseudoephedrine), Claritin-D, Zyrtec-D and Allegra-D. Many cold medicines contain combinations of these ingredients to treat multiple symptoms.
“Finding the right OTC medications can be confusing since there are so many different manufacturers and combinations of similar medications that they market to the public,” Wilfling says. “My advice would be to look carefully at the active ingredients listed on the box. Either limit the choices to single-ingredient medications or use combinations only for the symptoms being experienced. This will help minimize unnecessary side effects from multiple combinations of medications. In addition, generic medications provide the same relief as brand-name medications and are usually less expensive.”
A variety of non-pharmaceutical remedies also offers relief. Lucas recommends using a vaporizer or humidifier to help keep the air moist, as well as thin nasal and chest mucous secretions. Drinking plenty of fluids also thins mucous, and using a neti pot to rinse nasal passages can help relieve stuffiness.
And, yes, chicken-noodle soup does help. Dr. Randa Sawaf, a physician specializing in internal medicine with SSM Medical Group and on staff at SSM DePaul Health Center, says the old standby has many helpful elements.
“The steam extracts the mucous congestion and makes people feel better, and the broth hydrates you and further clears mucous,” she says. “In addition, the vegetables that are in soup are a good source of nutrition and antioxidants.”
However, when home remedies and medications don’t help, it may be time to see the doctor. Sawaf recommends individuals make an appointment with their primary-care physician if a fever lasts for more than three or four days, symptoms worsen (or do not clear up after 10 days from onset), bloody mucous from coughing, or the patient experiences chest tightness or shortness of breath. In some cases, a cold can be a precursor to a more serious infection, such as sinusitis, an ear infection or bronchitis. In rare cases, it can lead to pneumonia.
The best strategy is prevention, Wilfling adds. She advises frequent and thorough hand-washing, staying away from others if you do become ill to avoid infecting them, and coughing or sneezing into your elbow instead of your hands. Finally, she stresses, “Get a flu shot! Flu shots are recommended for all people older than 6 months of age on a yearly basis. This is a very important way to decrease serious illness in both adults and children. Protect yourself and your family against preventable illness and call your doctor today if you have not yet received a flu shot.”