Doc, these cold/ flu symptoms are killing me. How do I cure it?

Every doctor has gotten the “I have a cold/ flu but I really need to feel better by tomorrow. What can I take to nip this thing in the bud?”. In general, when people ask for a “cure”, they are asking for something  that will quickly kill the infection and immediately improve their symptoms. And here’s the deal: if I had a CURE for the cold or flu, I would be swimming in cash right now. And I’m not, so clearly…

Most of the treatments for cold/ flu are what we call “supportive measures”, meaning, things that helping alleviate the symptoms (cough, congestion, fever, body aches etc) while your body works hard to fight off the infection.  How long it takes to bounce back depends on many factors: age, strength of your immune system, strain of virus etc.

There are whole aisles in many stores and pharmacies dedicated to Cold and Flu treatments, and in general these over-the-counter options are good enough (next post will delve more into the specific ingredients over the counter that may help). Sometimes, certain symptoms may require a prescription.

But for now I want to focus on products that claim to help shorten the duration of the cold or flu, and lessen the severity of symptoms. Are these things legit?  So again, talking about evidence-based studies, unfortunately there isn’t strong evidence to support the following ingredients in TREATING cold/flu symptoms:

  • Echinacea
  • Vitamin C
  • Ginseng
  • Garlic
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E

However, there IS some evidence for the following:

  • Zinc: When used at the first sign of an infection, zinc may help shorten the length of a cold by up to a day. There’s no evidence that taking zinc lessens the chance on catching an infection.  Personally, I always keep some Zicam around and take religiously at the first sore throat or tickle. Sometimes it seems to nip things in the bud, but not always.
  • Elderberry: I’ll admit I just recently learned of this myself during my research for this post. Some smaller studies shave recently shown promising evidence that elderberry extract (sambucol) may shorten symptoms of influenza by up to 2 days.  Of note, the studies were specifically for the flu, and didn’t study other viruses.
  • Sleep: already discussed in last post, but there’s a reason why you get so tired when you get sick. Your body is waging war with the foreign invading bug, and this takes up a lot of energy. So rest up and give your body a fighting chance so you can recover more quickly.

And I just have to emphasize, that a cold/ flu is caused by viruses, and viral infections are NOT NOT NOT treated with antibiotics (there are very few cases when I would prescribe an antibiotic to someone with upper respiratory symptoms; for example in a patient with COPD, someone who I think developed a superimposed bacterial infection etc. 99% of the time no antibiotic is needed. Guess this deserves it’s own post). 

*note: never take any supplement before discussing with your doctor, since zinc and elderberry have been shown to interact with certain medications.

If you have a cold/ flu right now, I hope you feel better soon! And remember, although it’s not evidence based, a little chicken soup never hurt anybody  😉 .