A Patient Asks: “What’s Available Now to Treat the Common Cold?”

The common cold represents a benign, self-limited syndrome comprising a group of diseases caused by viruses. It’s the most frequent acute illness in the United States. The term “common cold” refers to a symptom complex that can include nasal congestion and discharge, ear fullness or pain, sneezing, sore throat, cough, low-grade fever, headache, and malaise. The most common time of year to catch a cold is in the fall and winter months for reasons that remain unclear. Antibiotics are far too frequently prescribed for these symptoms because patients want to get better quickly and doctors don’t bother to educate them about the difference between viral illnesses and bacterial ones.

There is, however, a therapy that has been shown in studies to work in adults to decrease the duration and severity of the common cold: zinc lozenges. If patients suck on one lozenge every 2-3 hours until it dissolves beginning within the first 24 hours of the appearance of symptoms and do so for five full days, while they still may be miserable, they will, on average, be less miserable than they would have been had they not used it. Side effects include an unpleasant taste, a metallic taste to food and water, and mild nausea. Patients should not use intranasal zinc sprays, however, as these have been shown in some cases to cause permanent loss of smell. The lozenges, however, in dosages available commercially, are quite safe and effective.

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