How are colds treated?

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Most colds will be over in 7 to 10 days, and can usually be treated at home. If there is a mild fever and a feeling of lethargy in the early stages of a cold, bed rest is advisable.

Here are some practical tips that may help to alleviate cold symptoms:

  • Inhale steam, with or without aromatic oils such as eucalyptus or camphor, but be careful to avoid burns.

  • Use over-the-counter cold preparations available at pharmacies. Most of these contain aspirin or paracetamol with or without codeine, and a decongestant (vasoconstrictor) such as pseudoephedrine to reduce nasal stuffiness. Pseudoephedrine shouldn’t be taken if you have heart disease, high blood pressure (hypertension), prostrate problems, diabetes, or thyroid problems. Don’t give aspirin-containing medications to children with viral infections.

  • Antihistamine preparations are of little value in colds unless one has an allergic tendency. Drowsiness may be a problematic side effect.

  • Some cough preparations ease a dry, hacking cough, but a wet cough shouldn’t be suppressed, as it’s important to cough up infected lung secretions.

  • Mucolytics (mucus-thinning agents) such as carbocisteine may help to thin nasal mucus and allow it to drain, which may help prevent secondary bacterial infections such as sinusitis.

  • Antibiotics will not improve cold symptoms and will not prevent a bacterial infection from developing after a cold. However, antibiotics may be prescribed for bacterial complications such as sinusitis or ear infections.

  • It’s been suggested vitamin C can alleviate symptoms, especially if taken early on in the course of the illness. However, no scientific evidence exists to prove or disprove this advice. Doses of 1-2g a day may shorten the duration and severity of colds, but this varies. Don’t use such high doses of vitamin C for long periods of time.

Reviewed by Cape Town-based general practitioner, Dr Dalia Hack. March 2019.

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