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What are the best ways to treat colds, flu and chest infections?

There are several treatments and medications that can help relieve the symptoms of respiratory tract infections. Some of them more successfully than others.

What are respiratory tract infections?

The respiratory tract includes the sinuses, throat, airways and lungs. There are several types of infections that can affect the respiratory tract such as colds, flu, sinusitis, bronchitis and pneumonia (the latter two being chest infections), and these infections are usually the result of viruses.

Because viruses are involved, antibiotics in general are not used. Antibiotics are drug used for treating bacterial infections, and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends prescribing them only in limited conditions when patients are at risk of serious complications.

How can colds, flu and chest infections be treated?

These infections are usually self-limiting, which means they will disappear without treatment. NICE advises that the worst symptoms of flu, for example, normally resolve after about a week, though some symptoms can last up to 2 weeks.

Resting while the body fights off the infection is recommended for people who have colds, flu and chest infections, along with drinking adequate fluids.

Otherwise recommended treatments usually involve providing relief from the symptoms, which includes:

  • Paracetamol and ibuprofen, for reducing a fever (a high temperature above 37.5°C) along with aches and pains including headache, sinus pain and sore throats. Adults can also take aspirin but do not give aspirin to a child under 16 years of age, unless on the advice of a doctor. Remember that cough and cold medicines can also contain paracetamol, so be careful about taking separate painkillers with these remedies.
  • Steam inhalation, for relieving a blocked-up nose and congestion. Covering your head with a towel while you bend over a bowl of hot water to breath in the steam is one method, but you could also run a hot shower in the bathroom to breathe in the steam – this is a safer method, particularly for younger children or people with coordination problems, to avoid scalding.
  • The NHS says decongestants designed to help reduce nasal congestion may only have limited benefits for colds.
  • Short-term use of zinc syrup, tablets or lozenges may help speed up recovery from a cold.

What other treatments are available?

According to Cardiff University's Common Cold Centre, drinking a hot beverage can help provide relief from a sore throat and cough because it has a demulcent or soothing effect, and spicy foods and hot soups promote airway secretions that can calm an inflamed throat.
Over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold remedies are available that may help in treating certain symptoms. A decongestant may be helpful for relieving a blocked nose, especially in the form of a nasal spray, but it should not be used for more than a few days because it can have a "rebound" effect, making your nose feel more blocked than before.

Combination cough and cold medicines include antihistamines for relieving sneezing and runny noses and medication for treating coughs along with painkillers such as paracetamol, but there is little evidence that antihistamines (which are good for treating allergies such as hayfever) and cough medications are beneficial in treating colds.

These medications should not be given to children under the age of 6, and if you do choose to use them for older children or in adults, remember to check the labelling on the packets for painkillers to avoid overdosing. Some combined medications contain ingredients that can make you feel drowsy and others may contain caffeine.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) released a statement in March 2009 that advises: "…parents and carers should no longer use over-the-counter (OTC) cough and cold medicines in children under 6. There is no evidence that they work and can cause side effects, such as allergic reactions, effects on sleep or hallucinations.

"For 6 to 12 year olds these medicines will continue to be available but will only be sold in pharmacies, with clearer advice on the packaging and from the pharmacist. This is because the risk of side effects is reduced in older children because they weigh more, get fewer colds and can say if the medicine is doing any good."

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on August 09, 2016

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