Before your sniffles morph into a nasty sinus, chest, or ear infection, here’s how to fight back.
Mugs of tea, a bottle of ibuprofen, and a truckload of tissues won’t get you through every case of the sniffles. Too often, the common cold turns into something more serious, zeroing in on your personal weak point to become a sinus infection, a sore throat, a nonstop cough, an attack of bronchitis, or an ear infection. And if you’re prone to a particular complication — thanks, perhaps, to an anatomical quirk (such as sinus obstructions), an underlying medical problem (early asthma, for example), or a history of a particular illness (childhood ear infections) — your odds of getting sicker, faster, can skyrocket.
But complications aren’t inevitable, new research shows. “With the right strategies, you can cut your risk significantly,” says Gailen D. Marshall, Ph.D., M.D., director of the division of clinical immunology and allergy at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.
The trick: Act quickly. “The problem isn’t the virus replicating in your respiratory tract. The congestion and thick, trapped mucus that lead to complications are caused by the immune system’s response to the infection,” says pioneering cold researcher Jack M. Gwaltney, M.D., professor emeritus in the department of internal medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. “It all begins within 10 to 12 hours after infection starts. You should take action the minute you feel the first symptoms of a cold — the scratchy throat, runny nose, and sneezing.”
Find out what to do if you are prone to…
If You’re Prone to Sinus Infections
Once a cold virus latches on to cells in your respiratory tract, immune system responders cause blood vessels in your nasal passages to swell and leak fluid. They also boost mucus production and slow down cilia — the microscopic hairs that normally sweep secretions out of your sinuses, ears, and lungs. “This sets the stage for a sinus infection, because viruses and, to a lesser extent, bacteria thrive in trapped mucus,” says Dr. Marshall. The best approach is to keep your nose open. “I preach to my patients all the time: If you can breathe through your nose, the likelihood of developing secondary complications will be much, much lower.” Here’s how.
Use a decongestant. Sprays containing phenylephrine (Neo-Synephrine) or oxymetazoline (Afrin) shrink swollen blood vessels in the lining of your nose, allowing mucus to drain. “Sprays work almost instantaneously,” says Dr. Marshall, “but you can’t use them long-term. After three to five days, they can cause rebound congestion — stuffiness returns just a few hours after each dose, tempting you to use the spray more and more frequently.” To avoid this, spray for no more than two or three days, then take two to three days off, he advises. “You’ll be able to use it safely for another two to three days if necessary.”
Try a pill. If you hate sprays, decongestant tablets can also clear your stuffiness, a recent Australian review of cold-remedy research has found. And they can work fast, reports a British study of 238 women and men with stuffy noses: Those who took 60 milligrams of pseudoephedrine (brand name: Sudafed) reported a 30 percent drop in congestion after just one dose. The downside is that decongestant pills make some people very jittery and they can keep you awake, so you shouldn’t take them late in the day. (Sprays don’t have these side effects because they’re topical — only a little is absorbed into the body.) Ask for pseudoephedrine at the counter: Because its ingredients can be used to make the street drug methamphetamine, federal law requires stores to keep pseudoephedrine-containing products behind the counter or locked in a cabinet. Choose one that’s just a decongestant to make sure you get the recommended 60-milligram dose — combination remedies may contain too little decongestant for maximum benefit.
Consider an antihistamine. In recent studies, antihistamines (the old-fashioned kind, like Chlor-Trimeton, not the new non-drowsy formulas) reduced nasal secretions by about 50 percent, says Dr. Gwaltney. The less gunk in your nose, the less there is to become trapped in your sinuses. He suggests taking antihistamines for up to a week; if these make you sleepy, be careful about driving and similar activities.
Thin that mucus. As a cold progresses, nasal secretions grow thicker and thicker because they are carrying away viral particles and sloughed-off respiratory and immune cells. To keep things moving, try an over-the-counter mucus thinner that contains guaifenesin (such as Mucinex), Dr. Marshall advises. “You’ll know within 48 to 72 hours whether it’s helping you,” he says. “Your mucus will be thinner, and it’ll be easier for you to blow your nose.” It’s OK to take one along with a decongestant.
Honk with finesse. Vigorous nose blowing propels nasal fluids up into your sinuses, which can actually cause an infection, Dr. Gwaltney’s studies have found. Hard blowing also triggers “reflex nasal congestion” — more nasal-passage swelling. It sounds silly, but “fewer than half the people we see know how to blow their noses the right way,” says Dr. Marshall. Here’s how: With a tissue over your nose, close one nostril and gently blow the other side for three to five seconds. Switch sides. “It may take several blows, but it works.”
Sip chicken soup. In one lab study from the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, researcher Stephen Rennard, M.D., discovered that his grandmother-in-law’s chicken soup recipe might help relieve some of the inflammation behind cold symptoms. In the test tube, the soup inhibited movement of white blood cells called neutrophils by 75 percent; researchers suspect that in your upper respiratory tract, this curtailed movement could translate into a reduction in cold symptoms.
Warm your sinuses. Placing a comfortably hot washcloth on your cheeks or drinking a cup of hot tea — or doing both — feels good if sinus pressure is building. Warmth may also nudge cilia, which become sluggish when you have a cold, so they sweep back and forth more briskly to whisk mucus along. Inhaling steam in a warm shower also helps, or drape a towel over your head and a basin of very hot water and breathe deeply.
Try andrographis paniculata. This herb is less well-known than other botanicals purported to fight colds, but in one Chilean study of 158 cold sufferers, nasal secretions dried up significantly for those who took 1,200 milligrams of andrographis extract daily for five days. It’s available at natural foods stores; if you try it, follow package dosing directions.
Call the doctor if you have a fever; your face or the area around your eyes is red, swollen, or painful; you have a severe headache or neck pain; or your symptoms (sinus pain, pressure, yellowish discharge) haven’t improved after a week’s time.
Source: Sari Harrar