What is the Common Cold?
The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract. Common colds may be caused by over 200 distinct viral pathogens, the most common being rhinovirus, coronavirus, and respiratory syncytial virus. Because there are so many distinct cold-causing viruses, developing immunity against the common cold is unlikely.
Infection occurs when the virus comes in contact with mucous membranes (eg, eyes, nose, mouth). Colds generally resolve without treatment, and conventional treatments are mostly palliative and aim to shorten the duration of the illness. An over-the-counter stomach acid medication, cimetidine, may augment the body’s immune response to viral pathogens and prevent colds from setting in.
Natural interventions such as vitamin D and zinc may help prevent the common cold and aid the body’s immune response.
What are Signs and Symptoms of the Common Cold?
- Runny/stuffy nose
- Sore throat
- Coughing and sneezing
- Low-grade fever
- Mild aches
Note: Cold symptoms are usually mild and resolve within 7–10 days. If symptoms are more severe (eg, high fever, severe body aches), notify a healthcare provider as this may indicate a more serious condition, such as the flu.
What are Ways to Prevent the Common Cold?
- Avoid contact with others while you have cold symptoms.
- Direct coughs or sneezes into the crook of your elbow, not your hand or the air.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth during cold outbreaks.
- Wash and sanitize hands and surfaces.
- Exercise regularly.
- Get adequate sleep (quality and quantity).
- Take extra around children, as they are more prone to colds. Be vigilant about hand hygiene and disinfecting surfaces.
What are Conventional Medical Treatments for the Common Cold?
- DO NOT take antibiotics for a common cold. Antibiotics will not work against the common cold and can contribute to the development of drug resistant pathogens. Antibiotics are reserved for bacterial infections, such as secondary bacterial sinusitis.
- Over-the-counter medications that may help relieve some cold symptoms include:
- Oxymetazoline and pseudoephedrine for stuffy nose
- Diphenhydramine for runny nose, sneezing, and coughing
- Dextromethorphan for coughing
- Mild analgesics such as acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Note: Many cold medicines contain the same active ingredients. ALWAYS read labels to ensure you do not exceed the recommended dose.
What Natural Interventions May Be Beneficial for the Common Cold?
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D has a significant role in regulating the immune system. Daily or weekly supplementation and higher vitamin D levels are associated with a decreased risk of seasonal viral infection and acute respiratory infection.
- Vitamin C. Vitamin C augments several aspects of the immune system and helps defend against infections. Using vitamin C may reduce the chances of catching a cold and cold duration.
- Zinc. Zinc deficiency has been linked to immune impairment and susceptibility to infection; supplementation can bolster the body’s ability to fight off viruses. Using zinc within 24 hours of symptom onset may reduce the duration and severity of a cold.
- Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). DHEA has powerful immune-enhancing and antiviral properties and can increase resistance to many experimental infections. Supplementation in elderly populations is likely to be important, as DHEA declines with age.
- Melatonin. Melatonin helps combat many types of viral infections. Its administration is associated with increased production of antibodies and like DHEA, may be especially helpful in elderly populations.
- Elderberry. Elderberry has been used for its medicinal properties since ancient times. Elderberry extracts are used for managing viral infections, such as the common cold.
- Garlic. Allicin, a compound found in garlic, has demonstrated antiviral activity. Allicin-containing garlic supplements may help prevent viral infection and reduce duration of cold symptoms.
- Andrographis paniculata. Andrographis paniculata has been used for centuries among Asian cultures to treat colds. Standardized extracts can reduce symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection and may prevent colds as well.
- Probiotics. Probiotics may help prevent infection and reduce the risk of catching a common cold. Some probiotics are also associated with reduced severity and duration of symptoms caused by common upper respiratory tract infections.
- Other natural interventions that may be beneficial for common colds include Astragalus membranaceus, lactoferrin, beta-glucan, echinacea, honey, and enzymatically modified rice bran.