We can put a man on the moon; we can design a handheld device that holds the entire works of William Shakespeare; we can microwave a dinner in 3 minutes.  Despite all the advances in human history, one advancement still eludes us — the cure for the common cold.    Since ancient times, humans have battled itchy eyes, runny nose and coughs using a variety of home therapies, herbs and medications.  But what is effective?  What is safe to use?

The common cold is an infection of the upper respiratory tract – the nose, nasal passages and the throat.  It can be caused by over 200 viruses, but the most common is a family known as the rhinoviruses (“Nose” virus from the Greek Rhino).    Symptoms usually show up a couple of days after we become infected. A sore, scratchy throat, sneezing, and a runny nose are early signs of a cold. Later symptoms include headache, stuffy nose, watering eyes, hacking cough, chills, muscle aches, and general malaise (ill-feeling) lasting from 2 to 7 days. Some cases may last for two weeks.

Naturally, rest and fluids are the cornerstones for treating a cold.  Fluids such as water, juice, clear broth or warm lemon water with honey help loosen congestion and prevent dehydration.  It is best to avoid alcohol, coffee and caffeinated beverages, which can make dehydration worse.

A variety of over the counter (OTC) products exist to treat symptoms.  While they do not alter the course of the cold, they may help to relieve symptoms.    By using an OTC medication, you can get over a cold in a week; without them it will take 7 days.   One of the most common questions asked is “which product is right for me?”   With so many products on the market, wading through the cough and cold aisle may seem like a difficult task.  A couple of suggestions:  Only treat the symptoms you are experiencing; check for conditions such as high blood pressure/diabetes/thyroid disease; and finally ask your pharmacist to select a product that is best for you.  Health Canada no longer recommends OTC meds for children under 6.  There is limited evidence that these products work in young children and the risk of side effects and overdose outweighs any minute benefits.  Have a Merry Christmas and as always take care of yourselves and each other.