More than $250 million worth of cold, cough and flu remedies are sold in Australia every year - despite the fact that there’s not much convincing clinical evidence that they work any better than a placebo. On the other hand, there’s also no conclusive evidence they don’t work.
Confused? CHOICE outlines the most effective strategies for treating your next cold, flu or cough.
Action plan for colds
Rest up, as it helps you fight the virus in the first few days when you're most affected and most contagious.
Drink plenty of fluids to loosen congestion and prevent dehydration. A warm honey and lemon drink soothes your throat, while chicken broth appears to have anti-inflammatory properties. Avoid dehydrating caffeine drinks and alcohol.
Flush your nose with saline nose drops twice a day to ease congestion and help prevent bacterial infection. Saline doesn’t cause the rebound effect of nasal decongestants, and is safe for children.
Gargle with salt water (half a teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm water) to relieve swelling in the throat.
Humidify with steam from a shower or kettle – a dry atmosphere exacerbates a cold by drying out the throat and nasal passages.
Suck sugar-free lozenges to ease a dry, sore throat and reduce tickling that causes dry coughing. Medicated lozenges aren’t necessary, although menthol or eucalyptus may help your head feel clearer.
Suppress a dry cough with one or two teaspoons of honey - a useful remedy for children over the age of one.
What you might consider
Over-the-counter cold and flu treatments and cough medicines may help alleviate some symptoms, for some people, some of the time. You may experience adverse side effects to some ingredients, so check labels carefully and choose a product with only the active ingredients you need. Many cold and flu treatments are combination products, and you may not have all the symptoms they are designed to treat; or, more commonly, you may not have all the symptoms at the same time. See Over-the-counter remedies for information about the different medications on offer.
Vitamin C, zinc and echinacea have all been promoted as aids for reducing the severity and duration of colds, and the likelihood of catching one. While some studies have found some benefit, findings are inconsistent and reported effects could come down to the quality of the study or the particular preparation used.
What you should avoid
- Antibiotics won’t help a viral infection. However, they may be required if a bacterial infection - such as sinusitis or bronchitis - develops.
- Aspirin should not be taken by children or teenagers, as it can cause a serious illness called Reye's syndrome.
When you should see your doctor
For most people, a cold is a short-lived (albeit miserable) condition, although for some it can trigger more serious problems such as asthma attacks, worsening emphysema or potentially fatal pneumonia.
You should see your GP if:
- your fever is unusually high (over 38.5°C) or prolonged (more than a few days).
- symptoms of bacterial infection occur. A severe cough that produces mucus may indicate bronchitis or pneumonia. In children, a cough could indicate croup, bronchiolitis or asthma. Pain in the ears can indicate a middle ear infection. Severe headache, facial pain or pain in the teeth can indicate a sinus infection. Antibiotics won’t treat a cold or flu, but may be useful for these secondary bacterial infections.