(Image: Alison Young via Flickr)

(Image: Alison Young via Flickr)

Finding a cure for the common cold has long been seen by many as something akin to the search for the Holy Grail, but Canadian researchers say they have a good idea about what best prevents and treats the malady.

Writing in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ), the researchers suggest that simply washing your hands and taking zinc are the best things you can do to prevent a cold, and that taking acetaminophen, ibuprofen, perhaps in combination with decongestants, are the best way to treat colds.

A cold, which is usually accompanied by symptoms such as a cough, stuffy or runny nose, and sore throat, is usually at its worse for the first three days. While a cold lasts anywhere from a week to 10 days, it can sometimes last as long as three weeks, according to the researchers.

Colds are usually caused by a virus and not a bacterial infection.  According to the researchers, only about 5 percent of those who were clinically diagnosed got a cold because of a bacterial infection, yet some doctors improperly prescribe antibiotics to treat viral infections.

One of the best ways to prevent colds, according to researchers, is by washing your hands with soap and water (Arlington County via Flickr/Creative Commons)

One of the best ways to prevent a cold, according to researchers, is by washing your hands with soap and water. (Arlington County via Flickr/Creative Commons)

According to the Canadian team, adults tend to catch a cold about two to three times a year while children 2 and under catch a cold about six times a year.

The researchers also point out just how expensive getting a cold can be. They estimate, using 7-year-old data, that Americans seeking medical treatment for their colds—including trips to the doctor, prescriptions and other medication, not to mention complications such as secondary infections—pay out around $17 billion a year. Other costs, such as missed work due to a cold or taking care of a loved one with a cold, tack on another $25 billion a year. Colds also cause declines in function and productivity at work and may affect other activities such as driving, according to Dr. Michael Allan of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, and Dr. Bruce Arroll at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

So what works in preventing and treating the common cold?

It looks like good old hand washing, along with alcohol based disinfectants/sanitizers and gloves are the most effective, according to the team, which reviewed data from a number of randomized control trials.

Canadian researchers also say that taking zinc could help prevent the common cold (Wikimedia Commons)

Canadian researchers say  taking zinc might help prevent the common cold. (Wikimedia Commons)

They also found, in two randomized control trials, that Zinc may help prevent colds for children and perhaps adults, too.  Their studies indicate that children who took 10 or 15 mg doses of zinc sulfate each day got fewer colds and didn’t miss as much school due to the malady. The researchers think adults could also benefit from taking zinc, although no specific data on this was reviewed.

The researchers also found some evidence that another cold-fighting ingredient might be found in our guts and that taking probiotics might be beneficial. Since the organisms and formulation (pills or liquid) used in the probiotic treatments were varied in their studies, the researchers had difficulty making specific comparisons.

As far as treating the cold, the team found that antihistamines combined with decongestants and/or pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be somewhat effective in treating colds in older children and adults, but not so for children less than 5 years of age

For the pain and fever associated with the cold, the researchers said both ibuprofen and acetaminophen are helpful, while Ibuprofen seems to be best for treating fever in children.

A lot of people use nasal sprays to help with runny nose or congestion.  But researchers studying ipratropium, a drug used to treat allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, found that it might be helpful in relieving a runny nose (when taken in a nasal spray) but doesn’t help with congestion.

The researchers also looked at other popular cold remedies such as ginseng, gargling, vapor rubs and homeopathic therapies and found the benefits of their use to treat a cold were unclear.

Researchers found that ibuprofen seemed to be best for treating fever in children (Wikimedia Commons)

Researchers find ibuprofen seems to be most effective for treating fever in children. (Wikimedia Commons)

The team found that cough medicine provided only a slight benefit to adults and was of no help to children. Instead of cough medicine, researchers suggest parents give their children honey since they found it can slightly relieve coughs in children over age 1. They also called the use of vitamin C as a preventative and treatment into question as well.

“Much more evidence now exists in this area, but many uncertainties remain regarding interventions to prevent and treat the common cold,” the authors wrote. “We focused on RCTs and systematic reviews and meta-analyses of RCTs for therapy, but few of the studies had a low risk of bias. However, many of the results were inconsistent and had small effects (e.g., vitamin C), which arouses suspicion that any noted benefit may represent bias rather than a true effect.”