Scientists: These Are The Only Two Proven Ways To Prevent A Common Cold

Prince William stifles a sneeze. Photo: GETTY

We all get it, the common cold.

And everyone has their own way of dealing with it: go to bed; or take a pill and keep going.

A new comprehensive research of the available evidence on what’s effective and what’s not says that hand washing and zinc may be the best ways of preventing a cold.

And paracetamol, ibuprofen and perhaps antihistamine–decongestant combinations are recommended treatments, according to the review in the Canadian journal CMAJ.

The common cold is hits adults two to three times a year and children under age two about six times a year.

Symptoms such as sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, cough and malaise are usually worse in days one to three and can last from seven to 10 days, sometimes as long as three weeks.

Colds are also costly. Direct medical costs in the United States, including physician visits, secondary infections and medications for colds, were an estimated $17 billion a year in 1997. Indirect costs from missed work for illness or to look after a sick child were an estimated $25 billion per year.

The review, aimed at physicians and patients, looked at available evidence for both traditional and nontraditional approaches for preventing and alleviating colds.

What works?


  • Clean hands: a review of 67 randomised controlled trials indicated that hand washing, a traditional public health approach, as well as alcohol disinfectants and gloves, is likely effective.
  • Zinc may work for children (and possibly adults). — at least 2 trials indicated that children who took 10 or 15 mg of zinc sulfate daily had lower rates of colds and fewer absences from school due to colds. The authors suggest that zinc may also work for adults.
  • Probiotics: there is some evidence that probiotics may help prevent colds, although the types and combinations of organisms varied in the studies as did the formulations (pills, liquids), making comparison difficult.


  • Antihistamines combined with decongestants and/or pain medications appear to be somewhat or moderately effective in treating colds in older children and aduts but not in children under age 5.
  • Pain relievers: ibuprofen and acetaminophen help with pain and fever. Ibuprofen appears better for fever in children.
  • Nasal sprays: ipratropium, a drug used to treat allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, may alleviate runny nose when used in a nasal spray but has no effect on congestion.

According to the evidence, the benefits of frequently used remedies such as ginseng, gargling, vapour rubs and homeopathy are unclear.

Cough medicines show no benefit in children but may offer slight benefit in adults.

Honey has a slight effect in relieving cough symptoms in children over age 1.

Vitamin C and antibiotics show no benefit, and misused antibiotics can have associated harms.

The review by Michael Allan of the University of Alberta, Edmonton, and Bruce Arroll of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, can be read here.

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