From our friends at Tufts Medical Center

If you’ve spent any time on the T recently, you know – everyone seems to have the sniffles.  And while you’ve protected yourself from the flu with an annual flu shot, there’s no equivalent for the common cold. So what are your options when you start to feel under the weather? Or when you notice your kids are a little more congested than usual?  Laura Arvidson-Guzman, MD, general pediatrician at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center has some ideas for you. 

First, how can I be certain I just have a common cold?  Could it be a sinus infection or the flu?

The flu, sinus infections and colds are all respiratory illnesses which cause a number of similar symptoms like runny or stuffy noses, sore throats and fatigue.  The underlying difference? They’re caused by different viruses.The symptoms of a sinus infection include:

  • pressure in your nose, cheeks, forehead and behind your eyes
  • headache
  • thick discolored nasal discharge

One thing that clearly distinguishes a sinus infection from a cold (since occasionally the above symptoms can be present in a cold!) is called “double sickening” or starting to get worsening symptoms (fever, thick nasal discharge) as you were just starting to recover from a viral upper respiratory infection like a cold.

The flu typically causes:

  • fever (although not always) or alternating feels of heat/chills,
  • sore throat
  • a cough
  • body aches

Occasionally, the flu causes a runny or stuffy nose or headache (things you mostly associate with the common cold) and occasionally, nausea and diarrhea (especially in children).

If you have more than just the standard cold symptoms, it’s best to call your doctor for better treatment information.

What’s the best way to treat a cold?

To start, don’t immediately turn towards over-the-counter (OTC) cold medicines to cure you.

We don’t blame you for reaching for OTC medications to ward off unpleasant symptoms like fever, headaches, congestion and sore throat. But be aware they won’t make your cold resolve itself more quickly.

On top of that, it’s important to remember that while these medications may help your adult symptoms, they are not meant for small children.  Pharmacy shelves are filled with children’s version of common cold medications, but “most OTC cold medicine ingredients that are commonly used in adults have never actually been studied in pediatric patients,” says Laura Arvidson-Guzman, MD, general pediatrician at Floating Hospital for Children. In fact, those children’s versions are generally the same medications, with different dosing information.  “Available literature suggests that they are not effective for the treatment of the common cold and may have unintended side effects, so they are generally not recommended particularly for children under six years old.”

So what are the alternatives?

Dr. Arvidson-Guzman suggests the following for the treatment of the common cold:

  • Humidified air
  • Nasal saline drops (for children, also try suctioning if tolerated)
  • Drinking plenty of fluids to ensure adequate hydration (try chicken soup for a nutritious boost!)
  • For adults and children over the age of one year, honey can be helpful to soothe a sore throat and cough

What should I consider when choosing a cold remedy?

“If you  do choose to use OTC cold medications, it is important to check the ingredients,” Dr. Arvidson-Guzman says. Many of these medications contain acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and it can be easy to accidentally give too much if parents are also dosing these medications separately for fever or discomfort.”  This advice also goes for adults who might be less stringent about the risks of combining medications.

In particular, Vicks VapoRub is a commonly used OTC remedy but should not be used in children age two and under or who are otherwise at risk of ingesting the product, because it contains camphor which can cause seizures.

Alternative treatments like herbal remedies are not regulated by the FDA, and therefore very few studies support the efficacy and the safety of their use. Parents should be aware of the lack of evidence behind their use if they opt to use herbal treatments for colds.

Disclaimer: The content provided in this post is intended solely for the information of the reader. This information is not medical advice and should not replace a consultation with a medical professional.

Floating Hospital for Children is the full-service children’s hospital of Tufts Medical Center, located in downtown Boston, with specialty centers around Eastern Massachusetts. We provide pediatric inpatient and outpatient services in every medical and surgical specialty—from general pediatric services to the care of the most complex cancers, heart diseases and traumas. At Floating Hospital for Children, our patients are our inspiration, and they prove to us every day that you don’t have to be big to be strong. For more information on keeping your kids healthy and strong visit:

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