How Best to Prevent and Treat the Common Cold

Handwashing and zinc help fend off the cold virus

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Colds are one of the most common illnesses among both children and adults. What are the best ways to prevent and treat the common cold?

A recent review of previous studies found that regular handwashing and zinc may be the best ways to protect against cold viruses.

For people who become sick, antihistamines with decongestants, pain medications or both may be the best way to treat older kids and adults. Pain relievers also may help with aches and fever.

"Wash your hands regularly to prevent colds."

G. Michael Allan, MD, of the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Alberta, and Bruce Arroll, MB, ChB, PhD, of the Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care at the University of Auckland, led this review.

The common cold is a minor viral infection that affects the lungs and sinuses. Symptoms of the common cold include sore throat, sneezing, runny nose, cough and tiredness.

Generally, colds last for about a week, and symptoms are most intense during the first few days. Colds are contagious through physical contact, and stress and poor sleep can increase one's likelihood of developing one.

For this review, the researchers examined evidence from previous studies and trials on preventing and treating colds. 

Dr. Allan and colleagues looked at one review that investigated 67 studies on various interventions related to colds, including hand-washing, disinfectants and masks. The majority of the results suggested that regular handwashing significantly reduced the risk of getting or spreading a cold.

These researchers also studied two clinical trials that examined the effects of zinc in reducing colds among children. Participants were given either zinc sulfate supplements or a placebo (fake supplement) each day.

Over the course of these two studies, the researchers found that the group of children receiving zinc were far less likely to develop a cold and miss school than the placebo group. Antibiotic use was also significantly less common in the group taking zinc.

Dr. Allan and colleagues also looked at a previous review of probiotics, or "good bacteria," that included 14 trials. The results of these trials were inconsistent. In the two highest-quality trials, use of probiotics resulted in modest reductions in cold rates among children.

Dr. Allan and team also examined a trial on frequent gargling with water, in which 387 adults were randomly assigned to either gargle with water, gargle with an iodine solution or not gargle at all. Compared to those who did not gargle at all, 10 percent fewer people developed a cold in the group that garged water.

The authors of this review noted that only one trial has studied the effects of gargling with water.

This review also investigated the best medications for treating colds and found that the most effective treatments were antihistamines combined with decongestants or pain medications, pain relievers and nasal sprays.

Six large studies showed that antihistamines combined with decongestants, pain medications or both resulted in significant relief from symptoms. However, the participants receiving those treatments were over three times more likely to report dry mouth or insomnia.

Nasal sprays like ipratropium bromide (brand name Atrovent) were the subject of 10 clinical trials. Four of these trials reported that nasal sprays significantly improved runny nose symptoms, but another four found that they had no effect on congestion.

Dr. Allan and colleagues also examined trials on pain relievers like NSAIDs (ibuprofen, for example) and acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol). These trials indicated that those pain relievers offered moderate relief from pain symptoms and fever, but did not affect other symptoms.

Lastly, the Dr. Allan and team noted that three trials concluded that a single dose of honey at night may help relieve coughs and improve sleep among children over 12 months old.

The authors of this review called for more clinical trials on treatments and prevention techniques for colds.

This review was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on January 27.

The researchers did not disclose funding sources. Dr. Arroll disclosed that he organizes lectures for New Zealand's Pharmaceutical Management Agency.

Review Date: 
January 24, 2014
Last Updated:
January 28, 2014