What About those Other Products?

October 27, 2015

It’s the beginning of cold and flu season. No one likes a cold. You don’t feel sick enough to be in bed, yet you don’t quite have your usual energy and those sneezy, drippy symptoms are annoying! Consumers seek products that they hope will stave off a cold or at least make it disappear sooner. There are some cold symptom relief products, both prescription and over-the-counter (OTC), that are medications and as such have gone through a lengthy process to be licensed as medications. This would include antihistamines, decongestants and cough medicines. These products can help lessen cold symptoms, but they do not prevent or shorten colds.

 More often, people are turning to “natural” remedy products such as Echinacea, Vitamin C or zinc. The manufacturers of cold remedy “natural” products are there right along with you, marketing the products that you think you want. It is estimated that two billion dollars a year is spent on such products. 

These remedies are often sold as dietary supplements and are not scrutinized in the same way that a drug or medication would be. However, there have been some studies done on these products. What does the science say about them? Several sources were reviewed to compile this information (National Institutes of Health, Mayo Clinic, WebMD and the Center for Science in the Public Interest-CSPI). Here is a summary of what the science says:

  • Zinc for colds come in lozenges, syrups and sprays. There is not a lot of definitive research about zinc. There is some evidence that taken within 24 hours of the onset of a cold, it may reduce the average length of a cold in healthy people by a day or two. As far as preventing colds, some research has shown that for children, taken in low doses for 5 months in advance of a cold, it may result in fewer colds. (Key word is “may” not “will.”) Zinc is not recommended for persons with chronic illness or asthma.  Nasal zinc has been shown to cause severe, irreversible loss of smell. Side effects of zinc products can include gastrointestinal symptoms. Long-term use can result in copper deficiency. Zinc can interact with some antibiotics and rheumatoid arthritis drugs.
  •  There are many formulations of products with Echinacea which has made it difficult to study. Therefore the research has mixed results. Some studies show no benefit at all, while some show a small decrease in severity and duration of symptoms. No studies have demonstrated its ability to prevent colds. It appears to be most effective if taken on the first day of symptoms. Very little research has been done on children. Few side effects have been reported, but it can cause an allergic reaction or a rash.
  •  Vitamin C believers, nothing will change your mind. Vitamin C for colds has been studied more than the two products listed above. No study has demonstrated that vitamin C will help people prevent colds. Some research shows that if it is taken regularly before the onset of a cold, it may shorten the duration of the cold and the symptoms may be less severe. However, research also shows that taken after the onset of a cold, there is no improvement of symptoms. Overall, Vitamin C is generally safe. High doses may cause digestive symptoms.

 There are many products that will call from the shelves as you stand before them with your watery eyes, drippy nose and headache. But beware! These products might not help you any more than rest, fluids and OTC pain-relievers will. For example, the popular product, Airborne,  (which comes in many formulations)  was sued for false advertising when it claimed to “prevent colds and protect people from germy environments” and had to refund customers in 2008. Now re-branded, the product claims to support immune health and is comprised of vitamins and minerals (similar to a multivitamin) and bears the warning “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

 Have a cold? Before you spend money on products that may not yield any results, try: Rest; drink liquids including hot liquids (water, juice, broths); relieve nasal symptoms with saline nose drops or sprays or try an OTC decongestant or antihistamine; relieve pain and reduce fever with an OTC pain-reliever, add moisture to the air and give your body a few days to recover. If you choose to use a cold remedy product like those listed above or one of the many others that exist, be sure you understand what you are taking. It is always best to check with a health care provider first to avoid interactions. Should any of your symptoms become severe or worsen with time, seek medical care promptly.

 This column is provided by Quinnipiack Valley Health District, the local public health department serving the towns of Bethany, Hamden, North Haven and Woodbridge. The information provided is intended to give you current health information to assist you in making informed decisions.  It is not to be construed as medical or legal advice or a substitute for recommendations made by your health care provider. District residents who would like written information on this topic can call 203 248-4528 or email dculligan@qvhd.org.