Of Drops and Drips
April 30, 2005 9:14 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the throws of another cold handed to me by my ever-vigilant cold-bearing offspring, and it's occurred to me again that I've never satisfactorily asked whether or not the drugs I use to combat the common cold are doing me any good, or if they're just making it worse.

For eye pain and redness, I use eye-drops. There are many varieties. Because I sometimes have itchiness and buildup, I tend to go with the allergy variety.

I use nasal spray, particularly at night, as I get feelings of suffocation if I'm forced to breathe through my mouth for that extended period of time. Of late, I've been using an no-drip, "severe congestion" flavor from Afrin.

As far as pills go, I start taking my Claritin-D right away, even if I'm not sneezing. Additionally, at night, I'll most likely take Nyquil, or I won't be able to sleep.

I tend to drink a Titanic's worth of water when I'm sick, and this generally help things. In deep winter, I'll run the humidifier in the bedroom while I sleep.

In all of this, I always wonder if all of my efforts are only for temporary relief. I also wonder at how much transference of old bacteria can come from the application of this medicine (particularly from the eye drops and nasal spray), and if I'm not making it worse by continuing to use those items from cold to cold.

Anyone in the house that can weigh in on these OTC remedies?
posted by thanotopsis to Health & Fitness (18 answers total)
In all of this, I always wonder if all of my efforts are only for temporary relief.

Yes; colds are caused by viruses. Claritin, Afrin, and eye drops aren't doing anything to kill the virus. Drinking water is probably a good idea though.
posted by reverendX at 9:29 AM on April 30, 2005

What reverendX said, plus: Keep in mind that nasal sprays can lead to dependency, where your nose adapts to the spray, requiring more and more, and eventually staying congested all the time unless you use the spray.

If for whatever reason you want to use nasal sprays regularly (say, more than three days in a row), use a saline spray instead of a medicated spray.
posted by mendel at 9:50 AM on April 30, 2005

I'll add that Claritin-d is an enormous waste of money if you're not suffering from allergies. If you're congested and it's interfering with your life, take some generic-brand pseudoephedrine and be done with it. You don't need the antihistamine.

The only thing I've ever noticed to actually shorten the duration of a cold is zinc. As soon as you start feeling sick, suck a zinc lozenge every 3 waking hours or so. By day 3 the cold ought to be nearly gone (without zinc, my colds usually last til day 5 or 6). Works for me, doesn't work for some. YMMV.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:53 AM on April 30, 2005

When I was really sick this year, my doc said that Nyquil dries you up so much that it makes it worse because some of that moisture prevents *other* things from getting up there. He suggested Sudafed or another single-symptom medicine - those multi-purpose things can do more harm then good, especially when used for long periods of time.
posted by fionab at 9:56 AM on April 30, 2005

I also wonder at how much transference of old bacteria can come from the application of this medicine (particularly from the eye drops and nasal spray)

That's why the bottles for these sorts of things usually say to throw them out after a month. Do that. Also throw them out when you've recovered from your cold.
posted by grouse at 10:04 AM on April 30, 2005

The only product that the FDA has allowed to advertise that it affects the actual cold and not just the symptoms are zinc lozenges. They literally cut the severity and duration of a cold by about 1/2, for me anyway. You take 2 or 3 a day at the first sign of a cold and instead of lasting a week, the cold never takes firm hold and the symptoms are gone in about 3 days.

Zinc pills/supplements are useless. Here's why: we absorb a cold through receptors in our nasal passages. The zinc in the lozenges blocks those receptors. If you take a zinc supplement, the zinc goes straight into your belly and not into your sinuses, the only place where they can do you any good.

I get a couple/three colds a year and, for me, zinc lozenges are something of a miracle drug. (I do not own stock, nor am I in their employ.)

I never used to get a cold at all when I was on vitamins. That's your best preventative measure...that and lots of handwashing for yourself and your kids.
posted by wsg at 10:06 AM on April 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

--transference of old bacteria--

The products contain preservatives to minimize or nullify bacterial growth. The usual worry is droppers or applicators being shared with other people soon after an infected person has used them. That's a no-no.

But eye meds are always the ones that ought to be kept pretty rigorously clean, simply because sight is sacred. They should never be shared.
So keep the applicator/nozzle clean, never share it and never use it past the use by date. And try, as much as possible, to not touch the top of the eye dropper/top of bottle with either your fingers or your eye or anything else for that matter - that is just a first principle thing for eye drops.
(I'd think that dirty nozzles in the case of eye medication leaves you exposed to introducing irritants -- congealed dessicated medication & dead bugs & dust -- which may just nullify the actions of the drops.

With those caveats, there ought to be no carryover problems.

It sounds to me like you are doing all the correct things FWIW. As long as you keep within recommended doseages and frequencies it's all ok. But mendel's link gives reason to be sparing with the nasal sprays.
posted by peacay at 10:14 AM on April 30, 2005

My dad used to say, "If you have a cold and take some medicine, you'll get over it in about 7 days. Otherwise, you'll have it for a week."

Nothing I've ever taken has gotten rid of a cold faster, and that's not why I take it. I'm looking to reduce the symptoms - clear up congestion so I can breath okay and my head doesn't feel huge, stop a cough so I don't lose my voice hacking all the time.

As far as transference, I'm no expert, but I would think that by the time you get another cold, any leftovers from the last one would be dead. A nasal spray nozzle isn't exactly the kind of warm, moist environment we're told such things prefer. (With a cold, I believe it would be a virus, not bacteria.) On the other hand, if the virii do survive, and there's like 16 different rhinoviruses, you could be getting a type that is different than what you currently have. But if you have been infected with the older strain fairly recently, there's probably a good chance that your immune system is still able to quickly produce antibodies to fight it. As long as it's not too busy fighting off the new cold.
posted by attercoppe at 10:23 AM on April 30, 2005

In my experience the best thing to do is to let a cold run its course. Rest as much as possible, drink plenty of water, and don't go crazy with cold medicines- really, all they do is alleviate the symptoms so you can sleep better- that's about it. (Except for the zinc lozenges, as someone already pointed out.)

The other exception, for me at least, is with cough medicines. Heavy coughing really irritates my throat/lungs which causes more coughing- I once had a constant lingering cough for a couple months after a bad cold! So when I feel like I'm about to start coughing, I take tussin DM religiously every 6 hours, and that does the trick.
posted by elisabeth r at 10:49 AM on April 30, 2005

I want to reiterate the point about Claritin. Claritin is an anti-histamine to combat allergies. A cold is not an allergy. If you want relief from stuffy nose and sinuses you should take a decongestant like Sudafed (pseuoephedrine) and not an anti-histamine.

Also, as people have said, colds are caused by viruses not bacteria.
posted by Justinian at 10:54 AM on April 30, 2005

If any of your cold remedies contain ingredients such as tylenol, which are meant to lower fever, you might want to consider that taking them suppresses one of your defense mechanisms against viral infection. To a modest extent, a fever cranks up your metabolism to fight the infection. While seizure-high temps are obviously not good, a degree or two may work in your favor, especially if you get plenty of fluids (other than plain water, if you're sweating heavily). You'll have to balance this benefit against whatever level of comfort you feel such medications bring you--the tradeoff comes down to a little more comfortable for longer duration of illness.

And it's generally considered unwise to take aspirin for viral illnesses due to the risk of Reyes Syndrome: although the risk is generally believed higher for children than adults, there's no magic cutoff date and adult infections have in fact been documented. I don't know where the risk of the other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories falls, but you might want to do some specific research on that if you use them.
posted by salt at 11:50 AM on April 30, 2005

IANAD. Caveat emptor.

As reverendx said, colds are caused by viruses. The length and severity of the cold are directly related to the amount of time that the virus is replicating in your body and the time it takes for your immune system to fight it off. The only way that you can intervene is to bolster your immune system in some way, such as by eating well, getting rest, and staying well-hydrated.

All of the medications that you mentioned are for symptom relief. They may make you feel better, but they do not in any way make the cold less lengthy or severe, because they do not help your immune system fight off the virus. In most cases, they will not directly make the cold worse; but by making you feel a bit less wretched they might encourage you to take less better care of yourself (hey, I feel better! I can go back to eating like shit and getting 4 hours of sleep now!), which could be detrimental to your getting over the cold in the long run.

As for transferring bacteria on your medicine bottles, I think the chances are very very slim. Most viruses cannot survive longer than a few hours or at most a few days outside of a host organism.
posted by googly at 12:07 PM on April 30, 2005

I use Zicam Cold Remedy, a homeopathic remedy you can get at the grocery store. It works best if you start at at the very first sign of a cold. It's a nasal gel & I swear it either wards the cold off completely or makes it much milder. Not sure how well it would work on a full blown cold.
I also use Nature's Life Zinc Lozenges as soon as I start feeling a cold coming on. This brand is the least vile tasting of the one's I've tried that still work. The idea with the Zinc is to let it coat your throat as this is where the cold bugs live & it kills them so it doesn't work to just swallow zinc pills. You need to do this every few hours for 2-3 days.
posted by BoscosMom at 12:54 PM on April 30, 2005 [1 favorite]

Zicam is not homeopathic, despite advertising from people who don't know what homeopathy means. There are multiple clinical studies to support the use of zinc to suppress rhinoviruses, although the American Lung Association does is not convinced.
posted by grouse at 1:05 PM on April 30, 2005

Don't believe the ALA. Zinc works like a charm! I keep some around at all times, ready for the first sign of a scratchy throat.
posted by wsg at 1:17 PM on April 30, 2005

Nasal spray - ick. I can totally relate re the undesireability of mouth-breathing while sleeping, although for me the intolerable result is dehydration. So when I've got a cold, I reach for the tussin (since I'm usually also afflicted with coughing). In fact, I can't seem to get through a cold or flu now, without it turning into bronchitis. (Just got over one of these, which lasted three weeks!)

One additive I've been having success with, in addition to the chicken soup -- sauté some garlic and shitake mushrooms immediately you feel the symptoms coming on. Repeat as much as possible (I usually get to weak and feeble too continue this diet, and I think I suffer accordingly -- but then I also exacerbate the situation by returning to work after the worst has passed, instead of sleeping it off for a few more days).
posted by Rash at 1:18 PM on April 30, 2005

Er, is not convinced. Or does not seem convinced. Your choice.

When will MeFi get a grammar check?

posted by grouse at 1:08 AM on May 1, 2005

I'm a dad so I know where you're coming from. Those pesky viruses seem to come fast and furious when there are little one's at home.

I also use Zicam. When I take it at the very first sign of a cold it will ward off or reduce the cold's duration to a max of three days for me. Just make sure you don't snort it like a regular nasal spray. It works best when it is applied just inside the nostril. Those other over-the-counter cold "remedies" are a waste of money in my book.

The other advice I'd give is to wash your hands often. OFTEN. Also, teach your children to sneeze into the inside of their elbow instead of into their hands --won't spread the germs. This is good advice for the rest of you adults too.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 4:14 PM on May 1, 2005

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