Relief for a stuffy nose, cough and sore throat

Photo of a man with a cold (PantherMedia / Kasia Bialasiewicz)

There are no treatments that fight cold viruses directly. But nasal sprays and painkillers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen (paracetamol) can provide some relief from cold symptoms. Many other treatments have either not been studied well enough or have no proven benefit.

Colds are very common: On average, adults come down with a cold two to four times a year, and children have as many as six to eight colds a year. This is because colds can be caused by many different viruses, so having had one virus doesn't make you immune to other cold viruses.

Colds usually go away on their own after about one to two weeks. You don't have to take any medication. But the symptoms – such as a runny or stuffy nose, cough and headache – can be bothersome. None of the currently available treatments can shorten the length of a cold. Antibiotics don’t help in the treatment of simple common colds because they're only effective against bacteria. They can have side effects too, so they should only be used if a bacterial infection develops as a complication of the cold.

Painkillers

Painkillers like acetylsalicylic acid (ASA – the drug in medicines such as Aspirin), ibuprofen and acetaminophen (paracetamol) can relieve cold-related symptoms such as headache, earache and aching joints. They don't help relieve a cough or stuffy nose. These painkillers can also lower a fever.

Acetaminophen is the painkiller of choice for children in particular because it is tolerated better than painkillers like ASA and ibuprofen. ASA shouldn’t be used in children and teenagers who have a fever anyway. This is because it can cause a rare but dangerous side effect (Reye’s syndrome).

Nasal sprays

Decongestant nasal sprays or drops can help relieve a runny or stuffy nose and make it easier to breathe. But it's not advisable to use these sprays or drops for longer than a week at a time because then they could have the opposite effect, known as rebound congestion (a permanently stuffy nose). When this happens, just a few hours after using the medication the membranes lining the nose swell up again. The more often the medication is used, the stronger this effect is. There are various types of decongestants with different active ingredients. They can cause side effects like headaches, dizziness, restlessness and sleep problems.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is vital for our health. Vitamin C deficiency is rare in countries like Germany though. Most people tend to get enough vitamin C in their usual diet. Still, commercials claim that taking larger amounts of vitamin C in the form of supplements can help relieve cold symptoms. But studies have shown that vitamin C products have no effect on the symptoms and don’t reduce the length of the cold if you start taking them when the cold starts.

Herbal products

A number of herbal products are claimed to help relieve cold symptoms. But there's a lack of reliable studies on the benefits of these products. Some studies have shown that certain extracts of ivy, eucalyptus, primrose, pelargonium (umckaloabo) and thyme can at best slightly relieve a cough.

Products made from echinacea extracts are also commonly recommended for the treatment of colds. They are claimed to strengthen the body’s immune system. But the research on these products has not led to clear conclusions.

Steam inhalation and drinking a lot of fluids

Many people find it pleasant to breathe in (inhale) steam with or without adding things like chamomile or peppermint oil, because the warmth and moisture can have a short-term soothing effect on the mucous membranes lining the nose. But this kind of inhalation doesn't have a clear effect on cold symptoms.

Drinking a lot of fluids is also often recommended if you have a cold. There's no scientific proof that this will help, though, so there's no need to force yourself to drink more fluids than you feel like drinking when you have a cold. Still, people often find that hot tea or warm milk have a soothing and warming effect.

Antibiotics

Many people think that antibiotics will help fight any kind of infection. But antibiotics are actually only effective against infections caused by bacteria. They can't fight colds because they are powerless against viruses. Studies confirm that antibiotics can't shorten the length of time someone is ill with a simple cold. And antibiotics often have side effects: About 1 out of 10 people have side effects such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, headaches and skin rashes. In women, antibiotics can upset the balance of things in the vagina and increase the risk of thrush.

Things are different if, as a result of a cold, bacteria spread to the airways and cause an infection there. Then treatment with antibiotics may be considered.

The following may be signs of a bacterial infection:

  • Green nasal mucus (snot) or green sputum (coughed-up phlegm) lasting several days
  • Persistent severe sore throat and pus on tonsils
  • Stuffy nose that won't go away, and severe headache around the forehead
  • Fever, chest pain and trouble breathing

You should see a doctor if you have these kinds of symptoms. If you have a mild bacterial infection, your doctor can also write a prescription for antibiotics in case your symptoms don't improve over the next few days. Then you can keep the prescription on hand and see if the symptoms go away on their own.

Research summaries

Labels: Airways and respiratory system, Cold symptoms, Common cold, Common cold, Immune system and infections, J00, J02, J04, J06, J98, R05, R07, Respiratory diseases, Sore throat