Michael White, professor and department head from the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy, talks about cough and cold medications and how to reduce your risk of being infected and control your symptoms if you do come down with a cold.
Here are some questions with answers provided by White.
What are some things you can you do to avoid the cold and flu this holiday season?
The best thing you can do is avoid getting cold or flu viruses in your nose or mouth but that is easier said than done. Sneezes and coughs propel droplets of virus into the air and it can travel fair distances or fall on tabletops, desks and chairs where you pick it up on your hands and then invariably put your hands in your mouth. So wash your hands before you eat and keep your hands out of your mouth, wash down surfaces you share with others with disinfecting wipes, and avoid being close to people who are coughing and hacking if you can avoid it.
What about zinc and echinacea?
Research into zinc is pretty poor and the results are mixed. So it isn’t really known if it works or not. Since nasal spray zinc can cause loss of the ability to smell in both animal studies and some cases in humans, the FDA recommends against using it. Oral zinc supplements or lozenges are not thought to be dangerous unless you take them for more than five days at a time. Echinacea has been fairly well studied and can slightly reduce the chances of getting a cold and reduce the duration of a cold by about a day. However, the safety of Echinacea and whether it has drug interactions or not is unknown so people who have autoimmune diseases like arthritis or lupus or are taking other medications should probably avoid it. If you are taking it to prevent a cold, start it before you are going to the holiday party or getting on the airplane and only take it a few days. If you start feeling a cold coming on, taking it while you have cold symptoms and then stop when they go away. Do not take it for the whole cold season because safety data is lacking.
If prevention fails and you have a cold, what can you do to alleviate symptoms?
Dr White: For fever and muscle aches, taking Tylenol, Advil or Alleve is helpful but read the bottle and don’t take more than is recommended. Tylenol doses are now limited to six extra strength tablets a day, down from eight a couple years ago to better reduce the risk of liver issues. For reducing cough, dextromethorphan is a cough suppressant and now comes in a 12 hour tablet which can get you through the night. To reduce runny nose, there are antihistamines like Benedryl or decongestants like phenylephrine but antihistamines can make you drowsy and decongestants can increase blood pressure in people with hypertension. Your pharmacist can help you pick out a product that has the right mix of ingredients for your symptoms and your medical history. Children under 2 should not use cough and cold products. For the young and old, using a humidifier can also help you keep your mucus from getting to thick and elevating your head above your feet while sleeping will help the mucus drain away from the nose. For infants, this means putting wedges under their cribs, not putting them up n a pillow which can increase the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.
What about the old standby: Chicken soup?
The hot liquid can help loosen up mucus and the heat can feel good on a sore throat so your grandma was right.