January 27th, 2014
01:59 PM ET
Although the world of medicine has made incredible progress when it comes to tackling certain illnesses, scientists still have not been able to find the cure for the common cold. But there are ways to prevent colds as well as treat them. The question is, which are the most effective?
According to a review in the recent edition of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, hand washing and possibly taking zinc seem to be the best ways to avoid getting sick. Investigators reviewed 67 randomized controlled trials that showed hand washing as well as alcohol disinfectants are the best ways to ward off colds.
Zinc was found to work mostly in children, with two trials showing that little ones who took 10 to 12 milligrams of zinc sulfate every day had fewer colds and fewer absences from school because of colds. Authors of the study suggest that zinc could work for adults. Vitamin C, the "gold standard" of cold fighters, did not seem as effective.
When it came to treating colds, the review stated that acetaminophen, ibuprofen and perhaps a antihistamine/decongestant were the best ways to keep runny noses, sore throats, fevers and coughs under control.
Ibuprofen and acetaminophen, which are both pain relievers, helped with the aches and fever. Ibuprofen worked better in children who had higher temperatures.
Combining antihistamines with decongestants or pain medication was somewhat effective in older children but not in children under the age of 5 or in adults.
Congestion was more difficult to handle. Nasal spray with ipratropium, which is used to treat serious pulmonary disorders, was found to stop drippy noses but did nothing to cut down on the stuffiness both in the nose and the chest.
Even though there were no major surprises in the findings, doctors said the review does stress the need to wash your hands, something a lot of people don’t do enough of.
"This is a thorough meta- analysis," said Dr. Assil Saleh, an internist with Foxhall Internists in Washington. "It reaffirmed that the fundamental common sense measure of hand washing is the most effective measure to reduce the transmission of respiratory infections caused by viruses or bacteria."
A point was also made that colds are usually viruses, with only about 5% being caused by bacterial infection. Yet, many patients with colds are prescribed antibiotics, which don't help.
"Treatment typically aims to relieve symptoms rather than eradicate the infection itself, "noted Saleh. "It's important to emphasize that bacteria-killing antibiotics are often overused in treating what is almost always a viral illness."
While doctors shouldn't be prescribing antibiotics for colds, patients should their part and not insist on antibiotics. If they are used too often for things they can't treat, they can stop working effectively against bacteria when you or your child really needs them. The CDC has been concerned about antibiotic resistance for years and considers it to be one of the world's most critical public health threats.
According to the review, the common cold affects adults approximately two to three times a year and children under the age of 2 about six times a year. A strong cold can keep people in bed, knocking many of them out their routines for a week or longer. That’s why doctors say prevention is so important.
"Although self-limiting, the common cold is highly prevalent and may be debilitating, " says review authors Drs Michael Allan, from the Department of Family Medicine, University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Canada, and Bruce Arroll with the Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care, University of Auckland in New Zealand. "It causes declines in function and productivity at work and may affect other activities such as driving."
And that, the authors say, is nothing to sneeze at.
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.