One of the most common acute illnesses in the industrialized world is also one of the most mistreated, the "common cold". More times than not, Moms will run the kids to the doctor, determined to head a cold off at the pass at the first sign of sneezing and sniffling, with antibiotics. "I know it's just a cold but I don't want it to get worse" . The idea that antibiotics help prevent or treat a common cold or in medical terms an Upper Respiratory Infection (URI), a viral infection, is a very common misconception. Antibiotics actually could cause more harm than good because of their side effects.
The "common cold" is actually a group of viruses, the most common being the rhinovirus. Antibiotics work on bacteria, not viruses. Your immune system can usually subdue a cold in 7-10 days. When symptoms last longer than 10 days, we become more concerned that a bacterial infection is setting in. This is when your doctor will entertain the need for antibiotics.
Just because your doctor doesn't give you an antibiotic right away doesn't mean that he isn't treating you. There are several "over the counter" (OTC) medications they may recommend and a number of things you can do at home to combat the symptoms. Some of the more effective OTC medications are Cromolyn sodium, antihistamines, decongestants, and pain and fever meds like ibruprofen or naproxen . The cough in a cold is usually from post nasal drip so a decongestant or expectorant is usually more effective than a cough suppressant. Lorantine-D is a good example. Zinc preparations are not recommended as much anymore because they may cause permanent change in ability to smell.
The mainstays for prevention of spread to others are regular hand washing and mouth covering into your arm when you sneeze or cough. You may also want to add regular exercise, taking vitamin C 200mg/day and gargling with salt water . Getting a flu shot during cold and flu season will not prevent colds but will help prevent a more severe illness, the flu, which is a good topic for another day.
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