Put down the orange feel-better-instantly-so-you-can-get-on-with-your-life-and-get-better-faster liquid.
It could be full of empty promises.
Sure, that over-the-counter cold and flu medicine might soothe the throbbing heat in your cheeks and even relieve the dull pounding at the top of your head.
But new researchsuggests “miracle” fever-reducing drugs like DayQuil, Tylenol, and Motrin (or any drug containing NSAIDs, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen) might not be such a good idea after all.
In other words, you may start feeling better, but you may not actually actually bebetter.
While good data is hard to come by, the new study estimates that our heavy use of such medications could be increasing the number of seasonal flu cases in the US by as much as 5%.
The researchers cite a few factors that could make these medications far from a panacea for colds and the flu. First, someone who’s sick but is taking medication to tamp down their symptoms will probably feel better and thus be more likely to go out in public and infect others.
There’s also some evidence to suggest that fever-reducing drugs can increase a process called viral shedding, which is how viral particles that can spread the flu or a cold get released into the environment to get other people sick. The more viral particles people shed, the more infectious they are.
Several experiments have looked specifically at how fever-reducers affect viral shedding, but most of the data comes from animals (there are ethical issues with infecting people with viruses). Still, other research backs up a potential link between fever-reducing drugs and longer, more infectious illnesses.
In the experimental study from way back in 1982, ferrets (who are considered the best animal model for studying the flu in people because a) they’re susceptible to human flu; and b) they develop some of the same symptoms) shed more virus when they had their fevers reduced compared to animals who didn’t. The animals whose fevers had been brought down also saw their viral levels decrease more slowly, meaning they stayed sick for longer.
Further research on the subject has been done in people, but since these studies are mostly limited to volunteers who become sick naturally, scientists haven’t yet been able to firmly nail down the link.
In one study of people with the common cold, researchers found that those who took fever reducers shed more of the virus than people who didn’t. And a recent study of people with one strain of the flu found that the more doses of fever-reducing medicine someone received, the longer they stayed sick.
While not definitive, these studies suggest that grabbing the nearest pill or bottle at the earliest signs of a cold may not be the best way to treat it.
Epidemiologist and physician David Juurlink, a senior scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, told Business Insider he generally doesn’t recommend fever-reducing drugs “unless the patient is very uncomfortable.” Fever, says Juurlink, “is an adaptive response to infection,” something we likely evolved to have for a reason. As such, fever-reducing drugs aren’t something doctors and pharmacists should be prescribing too frequently, he says.
Still, more than 90% of parents give their kids fever-reducing medicines in some Western countries when they get sick. Most adults take them too, often on the recommendation of a doctor or pharmacist.
Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center emergency medicine doctor Shawki Zuabi is one of those doctors. He recommends people take fever-reducers because they not only help people feel better but because there simply isn’t enough solid evidence yet to suggest that they’re harmful.
Since we don’t have a cure for the common cold or the flu yet, symptom-reducing drugs like DayQuil and Tylenol are our best option to help people who feel terrible “at least feel like a human again,” Zuabi says.
Either way, the study authors and the experts we consulted stress how important it is to get lots of rest and stay at home when you feel ill.
Over-the-counter medications might ease your symptoms, but the only way to get over a cold or the flu is to give your body time to recover.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.