There is no proven cure for colds or flu but time.
However, over-the-counter medications are available to relieve the
"OTC cough-cold products can make you more comfortable while you
suffer," says Debbie Lumpkins, a scientist with the Food and Drug
Administration's division of over-the-counter drug products. "They
are intended to treat the symptoms of minor conditions, not to
treat the underlying illness."
Don't bother taking antibiotics to treat your flu or cold;
antibiotics do not kill viruses, and they should be used only for
bacterial complications such as sinus or ear infections. Overuse of
antibiotics has become a very serious problem, leading to a
resistance in disease-causing bacteria that may render antibiotics
ineffective for certain conditions.
Children and teenagers with symptoms of flu or
chickenpox should not take aspirin or products containing aspirin
or other salicylates. Use of these products in young flu and
chickenpox sufferers has been associated with Reye syndrome, a rare
condition that can be fatal. Because cold symptoms can be similar
to those of the flu, it's best not to give aspirin to people under
20 with these types of symptoms.
The active ingredients FDA considers safe and effective for
relieving certain symptoms of colds or flu fall into the following
open up the nasal passages. They can
be applied topically, in the form of sprays or drops, or taken
orally. But using sprays or drops longer than three days may cause
nasal congestion to worsen.
, also known as cough suppressants, can quiet
coughs due to minor throat irritations. They include drugs taken
orally, as well as topical medications like throat lozenges and
ointments to be rubbed on the chest or used in a vaporizer.
, taken orally, help loosen mucus and make
coughs more productive.
Until recently, another category of
over-the-counter drugs called "antihistamines" was approved only
for use by sufferers of hay fever and some other allergies. In
October, clemastine fumarate, the active ingredient in products
such as Tavist-1 and Tavist-D, was approved to treat cold symptoms.
The effectiveness of other OTC antihistamines for this use is still
Most nonprescription cough-cold remedies contain a combination
of ingredients to attack multiple symptoms. These combination
products often contain antipyretics to reduce fever and analgesics
to relieve minor aches, pains and headaches.
Users of OTC medicines should carefully follow the labeling
instructions and warnings.
OTC cough and cold medication sales totaled 3.2
billion dollars in 1995, according to a national industry survey.
That's no surprise, considering Americans endure about 1 billion
colds each year.
Children get the most colds--six or eight a year. By contrast,
adults average two to four a year, with a greater frequency in the
parents of children.
The high rate in children is blamed on their lack of a built-up
resistance to infection and the close contacts with other kids in
schools and day care. Women's closer contact with children may also
explain the greater prevalence of colds in women than in men.
Adults over 60 usually suffer less than one cold a year,
probably because they have built up a natural immunity.
Most colds strike Americans in the fall and winter. Contrary to
what many people believe, the increased rate of colds during this
time is actually not due to the cold weather. So why do more people
feel "under the weather" during the winter months? Probably, say
researchers at NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious
Diseases, because of the greater time spent indoors in cold
weather, increasing the opportunity for viruses to spread among
people. Also, the lower humidity during the colder months helps
cold-causing viruses to thrive and may dry the lining of the nasal
passages, making them more susceptible to infection.
Because the symptoms of the common cold are caused by more than
200 different viruses--most by the so-called "rhinoviruses" (from
the Greek rhin, meaning "nose")--the development of a vaccine isn't
feasible. To minimize the spread of colds, people should try to
keep their defenses up and their exposure down.
Cold viruses can be transmitted in one of two
ways: by touching respiratory secretions on a person's skin (when
shaking hands, for example) or on environmental surfaces (like
doorknobs or handrails) and then touching the eyes, nose or mouth,
or by inhaling infectious particles in the air (like respiratory
secretions from a cough or sneeze).
The best way to break the chain of infection? Hand washing is
the key, according to Iacuzio, along with not touching the nose,
eyes or mouth.
"Your mucus membranes are your first line of defense against
infection," according to Iacuzio. "Interference with the constant
passage of mucus raises the chances for entry of the virus." That's
why drinking liquids and maintaining a humid environment with a
vaporizer may lower susceptibility.
To minimize the spread, other helpful measures include avoiding
close, prolonged exposure to people with colds, and always sneezing
or coughing into a facial tissue and immediately throwing it away.
Cleaning environmental surfaces with a virus-killing disinfectant
is also recommended.
Flu typically affects 20 to 50 percent of the U.S.
population each winter. It's a highly contagious disease, spreading
mostly by direct person-to-person contact. "With the flu,
coughing--even more than sneezing--is the most effective method of
transmission," Iacuzio says.
The flu virus can linger in the air for as long as three hours.
In close quarters, conditions are ripe for the spread of the virus.
That explains why the highest incidence of the flu is in 5- to
14-year-olds, who spend much of their time in school, in close
contact with their classmates. The most serious complications occur
in older adults, however.
Years ago, there were no practical tools to protect people from
flu. In 1918-1919, a global flu epidemic, or pandemic, struck half
the world's population and claimed the lives of 20 million. Still
today, 10,000 to 20,000 Americans--almost all of them elderly,
newborns, or chronically ill--die each year from flu complications,
The challenge for scientists trying to protect us from the
disease is that influenza viruses can change themselves, or mutate,
to become different viruses. Scientists have classified flu viruses
as types A, B and C. Type A is the most common and leads to the
most serious epidemics. Type B can cause epidemics, but usually
produces a milder disease than type A. Type C viruses have never
been associated with a large epidemic.