Over the counter treatments for the Common Cold- what works?

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Let’s cut to the chase on the common cold- does anything actually help it? There are many products on the market that claim to. Unfortunately, the truth is that none of them make a great deal of difference-but some may offer a little relief. So here is the low down based on studies:


  • Antihistamines– common brands include Zyrtec and Clarityne.

Pros: shown to reduce overall symptoms on day 1 & 2 of a cold, but little help after that.

Cons: some people may experience side-effects, such as feeling drowsy.


  • Analgesics: commonly Panadol or an anti-inflammatory such as Nurofen.

Pros: may reduce fever, aches and pains a little.

Cons: no effect on how long the cold lasts or on runny nose/nasal stuffiness;


  • Ipratropium nasal spray– a common brand is Atrovent.

Pros: can reduce runny nose, but not blockage/stuffiness.

Cons: may cause dryness, irritation or mild bleeding from the nose.


  • Nasal saline rinses/sprays–  a common example is Fess.

Pros: because it’s just salty water, side effects are unlikely, and it may help runny nose/blockage a little.

Cons: studies so far have not been large enough to confirm a benefit.


  • Steroid Nasal Sprays– common examples include Flixonase, Nasonex and Avamys.

There is no evidence that these help, though better studies are needed.


  • Decongestant nasal sprays– common brands include Dimetapp, Otrivin & Sudafed sprays.

Pros: may make a small difference to stuffy/blocked nose.

Cons: may cause side effects such as dryness or irritation.


  • 3 in 1 combination tablets with painkiller, decongestant & antihistamine-

there are several brands available- for example Sudafed PE + allergy and pain relief.

Pros: may reduce overall symptoms and improve recovery time, in adults and older children.

Cons: potential for side effects, from any of the 3 components.


  • Vitamin C

Pros: taking regular daily doses may reduce the duration of the common cold, but it won’t stop you getting colds in the first place, and won’t reduce severity of symptoms if you do catch a cold.

Cons: Consistent preventive dosing would be needed and the benefits are little if any.


  • Zinc tablets/capsules:

Pros: if taken in the first 1-2 days of a cold, these might reduce how long a cold lasts.

Cons: benefits are slight, and it should never be used in spray form as it can lead to permanent loss of one’s sense of smell


  • Other methods: There is little or no evidence to support many herbal or complementary treatments such as Chinese Medicine, garlic, or echinacea. In many cases, more research of a higher quality  is needed. Homeopathic remedies do not work.


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