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Prevention and treatment of common cold: Scientific evidence insights

M3 India Newsdesk May 05, 2022

This article talks about the four different types of interventions focusing on the prevention and treatment of the common cold.

Defining common cold

Common cold includes a runny nose, sore throat, congestion, cough, general malaise, and sometimes a moderate fever. It is important to consider being tested for COVID, if any of these signs and symptoms are present. It normally resolves on its own after one to two weeks of symptoms. 


Common colds normally go away by themselves, with symptoms typically lasting one to two weeks. On average, adults may experience 2-4 colds each year and young children as many as 6-8. Yet despite its ubiquity, a cure for the common cold has evaded medical research and therapy is targeted at treating symptoms.

This article looks at four different types of interventions to see whether there is any evidence to support them:

  1. Vitamin supplements
  2. Medicines
  3. Home and herbal remedies
  4. Vaccines  

Vitamin supplements

Vitamin D

  1. There is convincing evidence that vitamin D supplements aid in the prevention of upper respiratory tract infections, particularly in people who are vitamin D deficient.
  2. This information is derived from the study vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: A systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data (February 2017).
  3. While vitamin D is well recognised for its role in calcium metabolism and bone health, it also seems to help prevent the common cold.

Vitamin C

  1. Supplementing with vitamin C may have little or no impact on lowering the risk of catching a cold in the general population, but it may be beneficial for persons who engage in short bouts of intense physical activity.
  2. In the 1970s, there was widespread excitement when placebo-controlled studies demonstrated that vitamin C might help prevent and treat the common cold.
  3. An additional study was conducted, and a Cochrane Review on Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold was released in January 2013.
  4. Vitamin C supplementation on a daily basis did not seem to diminish the prevalence of colds in the general population but did appear to lower the length and intensity of symptoms.
  5. Only individuals who engaged in brief bursts of severe activity, such as marathon runners and skiers, seemed to benefit. The chance of contracting a cold was decreased in this group.
  6. Studies examining the impact of taking a large dosage of vitamin C at the outset of cold symptoms indicate that it may have little to no effect on the length and intensity of symptoms. Additional study is required to elucidate these results. 


Oral antihistamine/decongestant/analgesic combinations 

  1. These seem to have some value in terms of symptom relief, but this must be balanced against the potential for negative effects. These combo treatments are generally accessible in pharmacies and supermarkets on an over-the-counter (OTC) basis.
  2. A Systematic Review by Cochrane Oral antihistamine decongestant analgesic combos for the common cold (January 2022) indicated that they offer some general benefits in symptom relief and recovery in adults and older children.
  3. Although an antihistamine/decongestant combination seems to be the most effective, the advantages must be evaluated against side effects such as tiredness, dry mouth, sleep disruption, and dizziness.

Using nasal decongestants alone

A decongestant may assist a bit with nasal congestion, but it isn't known how much benefit this has on the patient's overall health. This is what the Cochrane Review of Nasal decongestants in monotherapy for the common cold found (October 2016). As with any medication, it is critical to adhere to the specified dosage.


While paracetamol may assist with nasal blockage and runny nose, it does not seem to help with other symptoms such as sneezing, sore throat, coughing, or general malaise. This is the conclusion reached by the authors of the July 2013 Cochrane Review on Acetaminophen (paracetamol) for the common cold in adults. Additionally, they emphasise the need for additional study to determine the true efficacy of paracetamol in relieving symptoms.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) 

  1. NSAIDs are likely to alleviate some of the discomfort associated with colds (such as headaches), but not all of the other cold symptoms.
  2. This was the finding of a Cochrane Review entitled Nonsteroidal antiinflammatory medications for the common cold (September 2015). They are connected with adverse consequences such as stomach mucosa inflammation.


Antihistamines probably have a short-term (during the first and second days of therapy) favourable impact on the intensity of general cold symptoms in adults, but not in the mid-to-long term.

The Cochrane Review Antihistamines for the Common Cold (November 2015) concluded that antihistamines probably decreased the severity of cold symptoms on day 1 or day 2 in a greater proportion of those receiving antihistamines than those taking a placebo (a dummy tablet).

From day 3, this was no longer true, and there was an increased chance of adverse effects such as tiredness. The authors of the review found no evidence supporting the use of antihistamines for children with colds.


Antibiotics have not been demonstrated to be beneficial in the treatment of the common cold and have been linked to adverse effects and antibiotic resistance.

Colds are caused by viruses that are resistant to medications. Antibiotics for common colds and acute purulent rhinitis (June 2013) examined the use of antibiotics to treat colds and purulent rhinitis (coloured mucus from the nose). Perhaps unsurprisingly, antibiotics were shown to be ineffective and to have adverse consequences.


There is less research about the effects of steroids on the common cold, and they seem to be of little to no assistance so far. These medications are very effective anti-inflammatory medicines in various upper respiratory infections, however, the little data included in the Cochrane Review Corticosteroids for the Common Cold (October 2015) shows that intranasal corticosteroids may have little to no impact on cold symptoms.

Herbal and home treatments

Steam inhalation

There is little data, and there may be no discernible improvement or worse in cold symptoms. For decades, inhaled steam has been utilised with the belief that it aids in the drainage of mucus and maybe eliminates the cold virus.

The Cochrane Review Heated, humidified air for the common cold (August 2017) indicated that the limited data suggests that breathing heated humified air may have little to no benefit or harm.


Honey is likely to be useful in alleviating cough symptoms in children over the age of 12 months, and it may be as effective as over-the-counter cough medicines. The Cochrane Review provides support for this. Honey for acute cough in toddlers (April 2018). A straightforward solution that our grandmothers would applaud.


There is a dearth of research on garlic's impact on persons who have colds. As the Cochrane Review Garlic for the common cold (November 2014) only included one study with 146 individuals, we cannot be certain of garlic's potential benefits or hazards in treating or preventing the common cold.


Echinacea products have not been shown to help with colds, while it is likely that certain Echinacea preparations may have a little benefit. The Cochrane Review Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold reached this result (February 2014).


There is presently very little information about vaccinations' effectiveness in preventing the common cold. The Cochrane Review Vaccines for the common cold (May 2017) revealed just one research comparing an adenovirus vaccination to a placebo.

There may be little or no difference in preventing the common cold between the vaccination and a placebo, but further study is required.

Click here to see references


Disclaimer- The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of M3 India.

The author is a practising super specialist from New Delhi.

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