More than 200 viruses can cause a cold.

Can You Shorten the Duration and Severity of Cold and Flu Symptoms?

by Diane Helentjaris

So tiny and yet so mighty! While not even visible under a standard microscope, cold and flu viruses cost billions of dollars annually in missed work and health-care costs. Typical symptoms of a cold include a runny nose, cough and sore throat. With the flu, aches, fever and fatigue are also usually present. While it's too late to prevent colds and flu once symptoms start, you can take steps to shorten or reduce the severity of your symptoms.

1. Antiviral Medications for Flu

Antiviral medication can decrease the time that influenza symptoms exist by 1 to 2 days. Starting treatment within the first 48 hours of symptoms yields the best results. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends oseltamivir (Tamiflu) or zanamivir (Relenza). Nausea and vomiting are the most common side effects. In addition to shortening the duration of influenza, these antivirals often decrease the severity of the illness and are used to prevent flu in exposed people. Antiviral medication is recommended for people at greatest risk for influenza complications. Included are people age 65 or older, pregnant women, people with a weakened immune system and those with chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma and kidney failure.

2. Echinacea and Vitamin C for Colds

A "Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews" article published in January 2006 reported some evidence that early use of preparations containing Echinacea purpurea may be effective for the treatment of the common cold. The authors noted, however, that additional research is needed to confirm these findings. Another "Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews" article published in January 2013 concluded that daily supplementation with at least 1 gram of vitamin C does not prevent colds but does shorten the duration of a cold when it occurs by roughly 8 percent among adults. The authors noted, however, that taking vitamin C has not been shown to reduce the severity of cold symptoms or the duration of the illness when taken once cold symptoms begin.

3. Zinc for Colds

When started within 24 hours of the onset of cold symptoms, zinc shortens the duration of the illness by 1 day, on average, according to the authors of a January 2013 article published in the "Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews." The authors note, however, that there is no evidence that zinc reduces symptom severity from a cold. The researchers suggest a dose of 75 mg per day throughout the cold, although additional research is needed to determine the optimal dose. The most common side effects from zinc lozenges are nausea and a lingering bad taste in the mouth.

4. Symptom Relief

Several medications can ease the severity of cold and flu symptoms. Over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers -- such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) -- relieve body aches and fever. According to the American College of Chest Physicians, the nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drug naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn) also helps decrease coughing. Over-the-counter decongestants, including those combined with antihistamines or pain relievers, have relieved symptoms caused by swollen nasal passages. Decongestants are not recommended for people with high blood pressure and certain medical conditions. Antihistamines alone are not helpful in relieving cold symptoms. A pharmacist or doctor can assist in choosing appropriate medications for cold or flu symptom relief.

5. A Few Precautions

Being sick with a cold or the flu is not always smooth sailing. Anyone experiencing severe illness, deterioration after initial improvement, a cough for more than 3 weeks, persistent sinus or facial pain or a persistent fever should seek medical care. Prompt care should be sought by anyone having trouble breathing. Signs and symptoms suggesting an allergic reaction to medication -- such as swelling of the face, throat or tongue or breathing problems -- require immediate emergency care.

About the Author

Diane Helentjaris is a medical writer and past president of the American Medical Women's Association. She received her Bachelor of Arts (humanities) and Medical Doctorate from Michigan State and her master's degree in public health from the University of Michigan. She is currently researching her first book which combines both medicine and history.

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