The Pitt Prescription: Caring for your cold and cough

The Pitt Prescription is a bi-weekly blog where student pharmacist and Senior Staff Writer Elizabeth Donnelly provides tips on how to stay healthy in college.

Right now, as you walk around campus, every lecture hall, study area and dorm has one thing in common a specific sound that penetrates even the quietest parts of campus — the sound of sniffles and coughs.

As fall weather is finally rolling in, so is the illness known as the common cold. According to the Mayo Clinic, the cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, often affecting the nose and throat. You catch a cold when the virus enters through your eyes, nose or mouth. It can spread through droplets in the air which results from when an infected person sneezes, coughs or even just speaks or hand-to-hand contact with someone who has a cold.

Standard cold symptoms are a sore throat, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, headaches and body aches. According to the CDC, most people can recover from a typical cold in about seven to 10 days. The symptoms overlap heavily with flu symptoms, so oftentimes people confuse the two illnesses. The CDC says the best way to ensure you are safe from the flu is to get a flu shot.

Since colds are viral infections, there is no real cure. Many people take antibiotics to try and rid themselves of their colds, but this is actually not helpful. In fact, the CDC says taking antibiotics for viral illnesses will likely make it harder for your body to fight an actual bacterial infection in the future.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are certain risk factors that can increase your chances of catching a cold — age, weakened immune system, time of year, smoking and exposure. Colds are most common in the wintertime and if you’re in an environment where you can be exposed to the virus, such as a school setting, your chances of exposure increase.

From a medication-related perspective, there is nothing you can take to get rid of your cold or to speed up its duration. However, there are many over-the-counter medications you can take to help ease your symptoms.

MedLine Plus recommends OTC cold and cough medicines, but many of them are combination medications that have multiple components, so it is always best to read their labels carefully to make sure you aren’t doubling up doses of certain medications. For example, NyQuil contains acetaminophen, so if you are unaware of this and take Tylenol as well, you will be consuming a toxic dose. Be sure to read the warnings to confirm a product is appropriate for your situation — and always follow the directions on the label. Just because a product is over the counter doesn’t mean that it isn’t a potent medicine that can cause harm if not taken as directed. You can always check with a pharmacist if you are not sure what you should take.

MedLine also recommends holding off on cough suppressant medications until your cough is too painful to handle. This is because coughing is your body’s way of trying to rid excess mucus from the lungs.

As for sore throats that accompany constant coughing, MedLine recommends lozenges or throat sprays with numbing capabilities as a good option for soothing relief. My personal favorite lozenge is the “Cepacol Extra Strength honey lemon flavor lozenge” for oral pain relief. The active ingredients in these lozenges are 15 mg benzocaine and 2.6 mg menthol, which help numb the mouth and throat and reduce pain. But be sure not to drink hot liquids after using these products, as your mouth may be numb and you can get burned.

The FDA also recommends nasal decongestants (e.g. Sudafed or Afrin) for unclogging stuffy noses, expectorants (e.g. guaifenesin) for loosening mucus and antihistamines (e.g. loratadine) to aid with runny noses and sneezing. Any sort of aches/pains and fevers can be treated by an analgesic like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen). But be aware, they can also mask a fever, so you may not be able to realize if and when you have one.

There are also some safe home remedies for those who do not like to take medications here is a list of ones that aid in recovering from the cold:

  1. Drink water: Staying hydrated is key when you are sick (with any illness really). Dehydration is common with many illnesses and making sure you have enough fluids is vital for recovery. According to Mayo Clinic, in general, women should take in 2.7 liters of water every day while men need 3.7 liters.
  2. Salt-water gargle: Dissolve ½ teaspoon of salt in a warm glass of water and gargle it in your throat. This helps to reduce inflammation and soreness of the throat. (I personally use this method and can vouch for it. It really does wonders for my sore throat!)
  3. Rest: Getting enough sleep is important when your immune system is trying to fight a virus. Make sure you get enough rest and are not doing anything strenuous while sick. This means at least eight hours of sleep per night with adequate rest during the day to allow your body to heal.
  4. Consume warm liquids: This helps to soothe throats as well as ease congestion. My go-to warm liquids are chicken soup and honey tea.
  5. Wash your hands as well as objects you frequently use: Make sure you wash your hands frequently and NEVER touch your face (eyes, nose, mouth) with unwashed hands, as that’s how the virus enters your body. You should also wash items like your watch, phone, laptop or anything else that could have come in contact with an infected person or workspace. Clean hands and items are vital. If you are in the gym, a computer lab or any place else that has multiple people using the same objects, it is doubly important not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth and to wash your hands immediately after using such objects.
  6. Stay home from work or school: Colds spread through droplets in the air as well as hand-to-hand contact. If you are feeling extremely under the weather and have a bad cold, do yourself and your peers a favor and STAY HOME. Sometimes it may feel like you will get too far behind in your work, but it is in everyone’s best interest if you just rest and focus on getting better while not spreading disease to others.

The cold is extremely common and hard to prevent, with the CDC reporting adults contracting the illness an average of 2-3 times per year. Hand washing, refraining from sharing food/drinks with others, and staying away from people who are sick are the best ways to protect yourself from catching a cold. Stay safe this coming cold and flu season and remember to practice healthy techniques to keep yourself and others protected. Remember — you can talk to a pharmacist if you need help selecting the proper cold medicines.