A sniffle here, a cough there and suddenly a cold has come. What to do? Here's how to treat -- and not treat -- a cold.
Q: How do you know if you have a cold?
A: The "common cold" lasts three to 10 days, though a cough can stick around longer, said Dr. Donna Meltzer, residency director at Stony Brook University's Department of Family Medicine.
"It is characterized by variable degrees of sore throat, sneezing, nasal congestion and runny nose, low-grade fever, generalized malaise and sometimes headache," she said. "There are many types of viruses that cause colds, and infection is spread through the air when someone coughs or sneezes, or by direct contact with an infected person [shaking hands] or a contaminated surface [like a doorknob]."
Q: Are there effective home remedies?
A: Doctors still recommend the age-old standbys: Get rest and drink a lot of fluids, which help thin the mucus.
Gargling with salt water is also a good idea, said Meltzer, who recommends mixing 1/4 teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of water. Though studies differ on whether it's effective, she said that, in her experience, it temporarily relieves the pain of a sore throat.
It might even be helpful to gargle every day when you aren't sick. "Some newer studies suggest that individuals who gargle three times daily with water have fewer cold symptoms," she said.
Q: What are the best options at the drugstore?
A: A pharmacist can help people with colds choose the best over-the-counter medication for their particular symptoms. But, it's important to tell the pharmacist about any conditions such as diabetes, heart problems, high blood pressure or glaucoma because cold medications can exacerbate them, said Mark Macchia, associate director of pharmaceutical services at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre.
Also note other medications that you're taking, keeping in mind that your pharmacist may not have a complete picture of your medical history, he said.
Q: What about decongestants and antihistamines?
A: "In adults, over-the-counter decongestants taken by mouth like Sudafed and nasal sprays like Neo-Synephrine might temporarily provide relief of nasal stuffiness," Meltzer said. "Studies indicate that antihistamines such as Benadryl are ineffective alone, but might relieve some nasal symptoms when combined with a decongestant. Some feel that guaifenesin for cough might help." Prescription nasal sprays may also provide relief, she said.