Colds & Flu - treatments at home

Written by: 
Steve Chaplin, medical writer

The common cold is a troublesome but usually mild viral infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites.. There is no cure and antibioticsMedication to treat infections caused by microbes (organisms that can't be seen with the naked eye), such as bacteria. and antiviralA substance that acts against viruses, for example and antiviral drug. agents do not shorten the infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites.. Flu is also a viral infectionInvasion by organisms that may be harmful, for example bacteria or parasites. and has some symptoms similar to those of a cold, but people with fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system. usually feel much worse than those with a cold. See Is it a cold or is it flu?

It is often best to treat cold and fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system. symptoms at home, but there are exceptions for young children and people with long-term illness - for more information, see When to seek medical advice.

Means of treating cold and flu symptoms at home

There are three ways in which you can help yourself and your family:

Providing supportive care

The following will help you feel more comfortable:[1]

  • Rest - this will help you to cope with tiredness
  • Make sure you drink sufficient fluids, preferably water. There is little scientific evidence to show that this makes any difference,[2] though it may help because extra fluid is lost through sweating yet fluid intake can be reduced below the normal level when you feel unwell
  • Ensure that the room temperature is comfortable
  • Make sure there is some fresh air in the room to avoid stuffiness
  • Avoid smoke and smoking.

Simple measures you can take include the following:

  • To help reduce the discomfort of a high fever, gently sponge the forehead with tepid water. It is not advisable to use cold water or to sponge the whole body, as this can be uncomfortable and increase shivering
  • Sleep with the head raised slightly - this may reduce coughing
  • Avoid strenuous activity.

Using medicines that will make your symptoms less troublesome and make you feel less ill 

The medicines you can buy affect different symptoms. They are considered safe when taken at the recommended doses and in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.

Common choices include painkillers (analgesics), decongestants, cough medicines and lozenges.

Painkillers (analgesicsAnother term for painkillers.) such as aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen reduce fever, headache, sneezing and muscleTissue made up of cells that can contract to bring about movement. and joint pain.[3] The most important points to remember when taking analgesicsAnother term for painkillers. are:

  • Paracetamol is usually recommended as the first choice for adults and children
  • Some countries recommend that aspirin is not given to children aged under 16 because this may increase the risk of Reye’s syndrome (a rare liverA large abdominal organ that has many important roles including the production of bile and clotting factors, detoxification, and the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. disease)
  • Aspirin and ibuprofen are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) A group of drugs that give pain relief and reduce inflammation. - they should not be taken by people who have or have had a peptic ulcer; those in whom NSAIDsA group of drugs that provide pain relief and reduce inflammation. have caused an asthma attack, serious allergic reaction or itchy rash, or those who are already taking an NSAID
  • Some cough and cold remedies contain paracetamol or ibuprofen - be careful not to take an analgesic separately if it is an ingredient in another medicine you are taking
  • The NSAID dipyrone (metamizole) is used in some countries, but others have banned it because rarely it may cause bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. disorders.[4]

Decongestants can make a runny or blocked nose less troublesome by drying up mucus secretions:

  • They can be taken by mouth (pseudoephedrine) or applied as nose drops (xylometazoline, oxymetazoline or ephedrine)
  • After prolonged use of xylometazoline or oxymetazoline, your nasal symptoms may temporarily get worse when you stop
  • Some countries do not permit use of decongestants for children under 2 years old
  • Drops of a very weak salt solution (sodium chloride 0.9 per cent) can also reduce nasal congestion by making the mucus more runny;[5] these are preferred for young children and babies
  • Inhalation of warm moist air, with an aromatic oil such as eucalyptus or menthol added if preferred, is also effective – it is best to generate a steamy atmosphere in a bathroom by running the hot tap or shower, rather than using hot or boiling water in sinks or bowls, which gives a risk of scalding
  • Aromatic preparations can be applied to the pillow at night but are not recommended for children under 3 months old.[6]

Cough medicines may help soothe the throat but they are generally regarded as ineffective at suppressing coughing. There are two types:

  • Mixtures containing an antihistamineA drug that blocks the action of histamine in the body; these are used to treat conditions such as hay fever. (to promote sleep), paracetamol or ibuprofen, a decongestantA medication that helps to relieve congestion in the nose. and an expectorantA drug that aids in the the expulsion of sputum from the airways.; in some countries these mixtures are not recommended for children, in whom they may cause hallucinations[7]
  • Glycerine and flavoured syrups and linctuses containing no active drug; these are often preferred for children and may act by coating an inflamed throat and providing reassurance; ideally, these should not contain sugar.

Sucking lozenges increases the amount of saliva swallowed, relieving sore throat and therefore reducing coughing. They may contain flavours and ingredients that soothe (honey and lemon) or make congestion less troublesome (menthol). Lozenges are a choking hazard for children too young to suck them. Honey on its own is not suitable for children under one year because it has been linked with botulism.[8]

Using traditional and complementary therapies

Many traditional and complementary remedies for cold and fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system. symptoms are used around the world. It is difficult to obtain scientific proof that these are effective for cold or fluA viral infection affecting the respiratory system. symptoms - though the effectiveness of many pharmaceutical medicines lacks supporting evidence, too. This does not mean, however, that they will not help you to feel better.

Scientific evidence for some of the more common treatments suggests that:

  • Vitamin C in high doses - over 200 mg/day (0.07oz a day) - may be useful in people who exercise strenuously or are exposed to extreme cold environments; it does not seem to protect against catching a cold[9]
  • There is limited evidence that garlic is effective in preventing a cold[10]
  • Echinacea may be effective for early cold symptoms but may not prevent a cold[11]
  • Umckaloabo (Pelargonium sidoides) may reduce chest and nasal symptoms[12]
  • Chicken soup may have anti-inflammatoryAny drug that suppresses inflammation properties[13] that reduce symptoms.
  • The evidence is inconclusive for preparations of zinc [14] and various Chinese herbs.[15]
References: 

1. ‘Treating a common cold’. British National Health Service (NHS). http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Cold-common/Pages/Treatment.aspx, accessed 24 August 2009

2. Advising patients to increase fluid intake for treating acuteHas a sudden onset. respiratory infections. Guppy MPB, Mickan SM, Del Mar C. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2005, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD004419. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004419.pub2 http://mrw.interscience.wiley.com/cochrane/clsysrev/articles/CD004419/pd...

3. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatoryAny drug that suppresses inflammation drugs for the common cold. Kim SY, Chang YJ, Cho HM et al. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD006362. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD006362.pub2 www.mrw.interscience.wiley.com/cochrane/clsysrev/articles/CD006362/pdf_s...

4. Agranulocytosis and other blood dyscrasias associated with dipyrone (metamizole). Hedenmalm K, Spigset O. Eur J Clin Pharmacol 2002;58:265-74

5. ‘Topical nasal decongestants’. British National Formulary (BNF). http://bnf.org/bnf/bnf/current/5656.htm#_hit accessed 24 August 2009

6. ‘Aromatic inhalations’. British National Formulary (BNF). http://bnf.org/bnf/bnf/current/3067.htm#_hit accessed 24 August 2009

7. Overview – risk: benefit of OTC cough and cold medicines in children. Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. 2009 (www.mhra.gov.uk/home/idcplg?IdcService=GET_FILE&dDocName=CON041374&Revis...) accessed 24 August 2009

8. Global occurrence of infant botulism, 1976-2006. Koepke R, Sobel J, Arnon SS. Pediatrics 2008;122:e73-82

9. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Hemilä H, Chalker E, Treacy B et al. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD000980. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub3 (www.mrw.interscience.wiley.com/cochrane/clsysrev/articles/CD000980/pdf_s...)

10. Garlic for the common cold. Lissiman E, Bhasale AL, Cohen M. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD006206. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD006206.pub2 (www.mrw.interscience.wiley.com/cochrane/clsysrev/articles/CD006206/pdf_s...)

11. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Linde K, Barrett B, Bauer R et al. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2006, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD000530. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000530.pub2
(www.mrw.interscience.wiley.com/cochrane/clsysrev/articles/CD000530/pdf_s...)

12. Pelargonium sidoides extract for acuteHas a sudden onset. respiratory tractThe parts of the body that are involved in respiration. The respiratory tract includes the nasal passages, throat (pharynx), windpipe (trachea), bronchi and lungs. infections. Timmer A, Günther J, Rücker G et al. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD006323. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD006323.pub2 (www.mrw.interscience.wiley.com/cochrane/clsysrev/articles/CD006323/pdf_s...)

13. Chicken soup inhibits neutrophil chemotaxis in vitro. Rennard BO, Ertl RF, Gossman GL et al. Chest 2000;118:1150-7

14. Treatment of naturally acquired common colds with zinc: a structured review. Caruso TJ, Prober CG, Gwaltney JM Jr. Clin Infect Dis 2007;45:569-74

15. Chinese medicinal herbs for the common cold. Zhang X, Wu T, Zhang J et al. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD004782. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004782.pub2 (www.mrw.interscience.wiley.com/cochrane/clsysrev/articles/CD004782/pdf_s...)