Are you sniffling, sneezing and coughing? If so, you’ve joined millions of others infected with a cold virus.
Traveling, shopping and holiday stress can all increase the possibility of catching a cold at this time of year. What should you do?
Or perhaps more importantly, what shouldn’t you do? There are dozens of remedies on drugstore shelves. Despite the claims, none will cure the common cold or even speed recovery. In fact, many might end up prolonging your symptoms.
Many over-the-counter cold and cough medicines contain pain relievers. A few rely on aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen. The vast majority include acetaminophen.
Taking an analgesic for a cold doesn’t make much sense. Colds don’t usually cause pain or fever the way the flu does. But aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen may all extend viral shedding and make a sufferer contagious longer.
A more worrisome complication of acetaminophen found in many cold and cough products is that a person could unwittingly overdose. There is a growing concern that acetaminophen poisoning can contribute to liver damage.
A recent study published in the journal Hepatology (Dec. 2005) shows that accidental acetaminophen overdose accounts for many cases of acute liver failure.
Here’s how this might happen. Someone with a sore throat might opt for TheraFlu Flu & Sore Throat Hot Liquid with 1000 mg of acetaminophen in each packet. The maximum dose of four packets a day adds up to 4,000 mg of acetaminophen.
The same person might turn to a night-time formulation to try to get some sleep, getting more acetaminophen. Taking medicine such as Tylenol Arthritis Pain for aching joints might add as much as 3900 additional mg of acetaminophen.
Many product labels warn consumers against mixing medicines containing acetaminophen, but some people may not always take the time to look closely at the labels of their OTC remedies.
Lots of cold remedies also contain antihistamines. Ingredients such as chlorpheniramine or diphenhydramine may slow down sniffles by drying out mucus secretions, but they can also make a person drowsy or spacey. Driving under the influence of an antihistamine could be dangerous.
Some people turn to herbs to avoid problems with OTC drugs. Studies of echinacea have produced mixed results, however. The most recent research was disappointing.
Alternatives include astragalus or andrographis. These Chinese herbs have a long history of use against upper respiratory symptoms.
Zinc is also promoted as a way to combat the common cold. As with echinacea, though, the research is inconsistent. Some studies show benefit, while others show none.
We discuss several approaches to the common cold along with our favorite chicken soup and hot toddy recipes in our Guide to Cold Remedies. Anyone who would like a copy may download it for $2 from the Web site: Or send $2 in check or money order with a long (no. 10) stamped, self-addressed envelope: Graedons’ The People’s Pharmacy®, No. Q-20, P. O. Box 52027, Durham, NC 27717-2027.
With a cold it’s important to stay home and not share it. That’s why we love garlic-based remedies. They may not cure a cold, but they keep others far enough away that they’re less likely to catch it!

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