Communications: Patient Education

Patient Education: Coping with the Common Cold in a "Get-Well Quick' Environment

Wednesday, January 18, 2006  
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Family Physicians Say Patients Still Seek Instant Fix When the Only Proven Remedy is Time

The most common infectious disease in the United States has probably made its way to your house once or twice this winter and will likely show up again. That’s because most adults can expect to catch between two and four colds, also known as upper respiratory infections, per year. Children experience an average of six to eight colds a year.

"Right now, you’d be hard pressed to go to work, school or even the store and not see someone who is coughing, sniffling or sneezing.,” said Glenn Nemec, M.D., a family physician with the Monticello Clinic and member of the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians. "There are more than 100 viruses that cause colds and unfortunately, the only thing you can do when you get one is treat the symptoms while your body fights the virus.”

Dr. Nemec says although there has been a big push by a variety of health organizations to educate the public about the proper use of antibiotics, there are still patients who come in looking for their family doctor to give them something to make the cold go away.

"Antibiotics kill bacteria. They don’t work on viruses. And using them when they’re not really needed, causes bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics that previously killed them,” Nemec said. "People need to realize that the best way to get over a cold is to slow down and give your body time to rest.”

While there is no cure for the common cold, there are things a person can do to get relief from the symptoms, which include a runny nose, congestion, sneezing, scratchy throat, slight fever and cough.

Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help relieve the aches and mild fever that may accompany a cold. (You should not give anyone under the age of 18 any product that contains aspirin because it can lead to a rare, but serious illness called Reye’s syndrome.) Another helpful hint is to make sure you keep your body hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. Dr. Nemec said it should be enough so that your urine is clear. "That usually requires a lot more fluid than most people think.” And hot liquid counts too. New research suggests there may actually be some truth to the age-old remedy of chicken soup. If nothing else, doctors think it helps loosen up the mucus and make a person feel better.

For nasal congestion, suggestions include getting temporary relief from hot steam, exercising moderately which can help clear up a congested head or using saline nasal rinses. These rinses are natural decongestants which help clear the nasal passages. They can be purchased at your local drugstore.

Dr. Nemec says over-the-counter medicated nasal sprays also work, but can be addicting and should never be used for more than three days.

For a runny nose, sneezing and post-nasal drip, Dr. Nemec again suggests saline nasal rinses or taking an antihistamine. He says antihistamines will help to dry nasal passages, but says people should be aware that they can make you drowsy and interfere with driving skills. He says these medications should only be used if a person will be staying at home.

A cough caused by post-nasal drip can be lessened by treating that particular symptom. Steam may also help a cough, but only while you are in the steam, which means the relief is short-lived. As for over-the-counter cough medicine, Dr. Nemec believes these do very little. A study published in the January 2006 issue of the American College of Chest Physicians’ journal finds that these syrups are ineffective in treating coughs due to colds.

For sore throats, ibuprofen or acetaminophen is again recommended. Zinc lozenges can also be used. "They have a metallic taste, but will help decrease the pain,” Dr. Nemec said. Chloraseptic spray is another option to help shorten the course of an irritated throat.

While mild cold symptoms do not require a doctor visit, an appointment with your family physician is in order if the fever is over 102 degrees, the sore throat is severe, or the symptoms are not starting to decrease by the seventh day. Your doctor will check for more serious problems, including occasional complications from colds such as sinus infections or bronchitis.

The Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians is a professional association of approximately 3,000 family physicians, family medicine residents and medical students organized to assist family physicians in providing quality medical care in Minnesota. The MAFP is the largest medical specialty organization in Minnesota and is a state chapter of the American Academy of Family Physicians, one of the largest national medical organizations in the United States with more than 103,000 members.

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