Common cold diseases include runny noses, sneezing, coughing, chills, or a headache monster. It does not include a fever. Generally, if there’s a fever, we call it the flu. There are a lot of different viruses that can cause cold symptoms, but about half the time, the cold is caused by a class of viruses called rhinovirus.
The virus generally moves from someone else’s hands to hands by touching a doorknob or putting hands into the nose or eyes. The immune system opens up blood vessels inside the nose through inflammation, increasing mucus in the cold.
The irritation caused by the virus and all the fluid causes sneezing. As the immune system gears up over several days to fight the virus back, this mucus thickens and gets grosser. This mucus thickens and changes color with dead cells, a form of puss. But eventually, the immune system eliminates the virus.
How does cold medicine work?
Cold medicines typically work through a combination of active ingredients that target various symptoms associated with the common cold. Here are some common ways in which they work:
Decongestants: Decongestants help relieve nasal congestion by constricting the blood vessels in the nasal passages. This action reduces swelling of the nasal tissues, allowing for easier breathing. Decongestants typically contain ingredients like pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine.
Antihistamines: Antihistamines are commonly included in cold medicines to alleviate symptoms like runny nose, sneezing, and itchy or watery eyes. They work by blocking the effects of histamine, a chemical released by the body in response to allergens or irritants. By reducing histamine activity, antihistamines can help relieve these cold symptoms. Common antihistamines used in cold medicines include chlorpheniramine, diphenhydramine, and cetirizine.
Expectorants: Expectorants are intended to help loosen thin mucus in the respiratory tract, making it easier to expel. This can help alleviate cough and congestion. Guaifenesin is a common expectorant found in many cough and cold medications.
Cough Suppressants: Cough suppressants, such as dextromethorphan, aim to reduce coughing by acting on the cough reflex in the brain. They can help relieve dry, non-productive coughs, providing temporary relief.
Pain Relievers/Fever Reducers: Cold medicines may contain pain relievers and fever reducers like acetaminophen (paracetamol) or ibuprofen. These ingredients help reduce discomfort, headache, body aches, and fever associated with the common cold.
Studies look at different parts of the plant. They use different methods for each of the studies. Sixteen studies of the herb or medicine did no better than a placebo for preventing or treating colds. In the best studies with randomized controlled trials, most studies still found no benefit for medicine in preventing colds. Studies done since then aren’t any more convincing.
In 2007 a group of researchers claimed that the evidence. Fourteen studies suggested that medicine did shorten cold symptoms by a day or so. There are syrups, pills, and vaporizers to treat every symptom your cold can bring. They all involve some cool chemistry. It might help to know that not every cold medicine is as effective. Colds are some of the most common infectious diseases. Since more than 200 viruses cause them, we cannot create a vaccine against them. So the best way is to fight the symptoms.
Most cold symptoms are probably caused by the body’s efforts to fight off the virus, not the virus itself. When you catch cold, inflammatory proteins like cytokines release and tell immune cells to fix the problem. Mainly, they do this by dilating blood vessels so that infection-fighting white blood cells can move around more easily.
Unfortunately, those dilated blood vessels in your nose also lead to tissue swelling and congestion. Cytokines also interact with pain receptors in your esophagus, which can cause a sore throat. The nervous system can stimulate various nerves to trigger a runny nose, sneezing, and coughing. None of those things are especially fun. They stink.
When your nose is stuffed up, you’ll probably reach for a decongestant to clear up your sinuses. Pseudoephedrine is popular in medications like Sudafed Decongestant and Aleve D. It’s a carbon ring attached to a complex chain of other atoms, including nitrogen and oxygen. It reduces congestion by binding to receptors in the nose. It tenses muscles around blood vessels and reduces the extra blood flow caused by cytokines.
Unfortunately, since pseudoephedrine is a stimulant, it can cause insomnia, nervousness, dizziness, and even heart rate. Phenylephrine is a similar medicine found in brands like Sudafed PE. But since it can’t be used to make meth, it’s easier to buy. Unfortunately, several studies have also found that it is no more effective than a placebo. It means it probably doesn’t do much.
- Excess mucus production causes the symptoms of a blocked nose, sneezing, and coughing.
Some colds can also cause chest congestion and coughing. Many medications contain an expectorant to clear out some of that mucus, which helps you spit up those lovely green gobs of phlegm. The most common is guaifenesin, a carbon ring attached to oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon atoms. It’s found in medicines like Mucinex.
- Scientists think it suppresses the production of mucin, one of the main proteins in the mucus lining the lungs. That makes it easier for specialized cells to move mucus up.
Still, that’s based on research done in a lab. In patients, scientists have found that guaifenesin does seem to help thin mucus. But it might not be that effective at clearing it from the lungs. Some studies haven’t found much improvement over a placebo in people with respiratory infections. But at least we know it helps somehow.
A lasting cough may be the most irritating symptom of a cold. To help calm it, many medications, including Robitussin, contain a cough suppressant, like dextromethorphan. Dextromethorphan and molecules are four carbon rings and some oxygen and nitrogen atoms.
They include morphine, a highly addictive painkiller. But the doses used in cold medicines don’t have the same potential for abuse. They probably work on the brain instead of the respiratory system.
When you take dextromethorphan, it crosses the blood-brain barrier. The tightly woven net of cells in your brain’s blood vessels protects it from bacteria and infection. Once it’s there, it affects a bunch of different receptors. Researchers think it helps reduce coughing by binding to receptors for neurotransmitters called NMDA, sigma-1, and serotonin. Other drugs that bind to them also seem to suppress coughing.
Some recent studies have also found that dextromethorphan may be ineffective in kids. However, many studies don’t seem to be that reliable. Outside of cold medicine, though, it does have some uses. Because of its effects on the nervous system, it’s also being investigated for use in many different conditions, like treating anxiety and agitation in Alzheimer’s disease, which is cool.
Coughing is a natural reflex that clears your airways of anything that’s not supposed to be in there. When some irritant floats into your nose or mouth, receptors in the airways send signals to your brain, sounding the alarm. Then another message is sent back to the diaphragm, and you cough at speeds of up to 50 mph.
Fortunately, today’s cold medicines contain many more reasonable active ingredients. One or more of these are probably in cough medicine. Antitussives like dextromethorphan or DXM are meant to block the cough reflex. They can also make you drowsy.
- Expectorants like guaifenesin are designed to loosen and thin the mucus in the lungs, making it easier to cough out the gunk in the airways.
- Antihistamines like loratadine reduce swelling of the nose and throat and decrease the amount of gooey mucus your lungs secrete when you have allergies.
Still effective, all of these medications only treat cold symptoms. None help kill the virus or boost the immune system except maybe by helping you sleep better. Ultimately, the only thing that can cure a cold is time! But these medicines will hopefully make things easier while you wait it out.
Frequently asked questions
Is syrup prevents cough?
There is very little evidence that cough syrup is effective at treating coughs. Carefully performed clinical trials show that these medications are generally no better than a placebo effect. Of the 19 studies analyzed, 15 showed no benefit or conflicting results in one review. Other reviews had similar findings. They said, “no good evidence for or against the effectiveness of over-the-counter medicines in acute cough.”
So there is no guarantee that cough syrup will do anything for your cough. However, it could help you get a better night’s sleep. Large doses of DXM can cause dizziness, uncontrollable eye movement, convulsions, and even death. It’s especially dangerous for young children. Thousands of kids under 12 are sent to the emergency room every year. It is because of accidental overdoses of cough medicine.
How do you prevent cold diseases?
Drink plenty of fluid. That should help thin out any extra mucus and reduce your cough reflex. A humidifier or a steamy shower also helps reduce congestion. Cough drops get the saliva flowing, which can soothe your irritated throat.
What about honey and lemon? Though there’s little research on its effectiveness in coughs, a few studies suggest potential benefits over not doing anything. Also, it has been reported to help relieve cough in kids by soothing the back of the throat. The good news is that most coughs will disappear after a week or two without treatment. But if that cough lasts over a few weeks, see your doctor.
How does an overdose of medicine harm you?
It could be easy to lose track of when you take some medicine when you feel ill. This can be dangerous, as taking another dose too soon could lead to an overdose. Overdosing on common drugs like paracetamol can cause liver damage or, in severe circumstances, be fatal. Many cold and flu remedies contain painkillers and other medicines like decongestants.
Check the packaging and ingredients carefully before taking any other medicine. The easiest way to accidentally overdose is by simultaneously taking different remedies like tablets, hot drinks, and nasal sprays. With no cure for cold and flu viruses, many people turn to alternative medicines to speed up their recovery.
The research results into alternative medicines for viruses like colds and flu a mixed. But vitamin C, zinc, and echinacea may have a minimal effect in helping your body fight the virus so you can recover quicker. These products did not affect cold and flu prevention. Be sure to read all medicine labels carefully. Some alternative treatments can change the way your body reacts to other medications.
Pramod JR (2008). Textbook of Oral Medicine. Jaypee Brothers Publishers.
Lee H, Kang B, Hong M, Lee HL, Choi JY, Lee JA (July 2020). “Eunkyosan for the common cold: A PRISMA-compliment systematic review of randomized, controlled trials.”
“Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others.” CDC. 6 October 2015.
“Understanding the symptoms of the common cold and influenza.” The Lancet. Infectious Diseases.
Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ (2014). Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. Elsevier Health Sciences.
Table of Contents