The common cold: an incurable disease

December 19, 2011

Mark L. Friedman, MD, FACEP, FACP

A cure for the common cold remains elusive. Yet every day people with cold symptoms line up in the clinic waiting room, hoping for the "cure."

For the record: penicillin and other antibiotics are of no value against the multitude of viruses that cause the "cold symptoms" of runny nose, low grade (less than 102.2 F) fever, muscle aches, and general misery. I wish they were; it would make my life much simpler.

Instead I must counsel patients to use various over-the-counter medicines, including ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), aspirin (but never in cases of influenza or chicken pox where it can result in Reyes Syndrome--not generally used in children for that reason), or acetaminophen (Tylenol) for fever, achiness and headaches, dextromethorphan for cough, and pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) or antihistamines for runny nose or congestion.

Unfortunately (for me), none of these medications require a doctor's prescription, so my patients feel cheated. The typical response is, "I didn't need to see a doctor to get Tylenol." This is true, so be forewarned: If all you have are the typical cold symptoms listed above, remember that there is no cure for the common cold. Stay in bed, drink plenty of water, take over-the-counter medications as indicated for symptomatic relief, and save yourself the trouble and expense of a doctor visit.

That said, you can potentially avoid colds altogether by limiting exposure through careful hand washing with soap and/or hand sanitizer (especially before touching your eyes, nose, or mouth) and avoiding sources of infection. People who cough and sneeze broadcast virus-containing droplets into the air we breathe, as well as on their hands and whatever else they then touch.

An annual flu shot is a good idea as well. Although the vaccine will not prevent an actual cold (because it is caused by different types of viruses), influenza is like a cold X 10 and can actually kill people.

When is a "cold" possibly more than a cold and worth the cost of a doctor visit? High or persistent fever (above 103 F or more than 48 hours), persistent cough, bloody sputum, difficulty breathing, inability to swallow, significant sore throat or ear ache, headache and stiff or sore neck, or a "summer fever" with significant malaise are all symptoms worthy of a trip to the doctor. When in doubt call your doctor (or First Stop Health) for advice.

Originally published Dec 19, 2011 2:08:21 PM.