Are Most Cold Medications a Complete Waste of Money?

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“In a nutshell, there’s nothing that works.”

That’s according to Aaron Glatt, an Infectious Disease Society of America spokesman (who, reassuringly, also happens to be a doctor). Glatt goes on to tell USA Today:

“There’s a tremendous industry out there, and some people really swear by them. But there really aren’t great studies to show any benefit.”

Americans spend over $4 billion a year on cough and cold medications. And, according to the experts and many studies, buying over-the-counter cough syrup and pouring it down your throat is pretty much like pouring money down the drain.

So that’s that, right? Actually, the issue’s more complicated. For one thing, the human brain is involved—and that’s always sure to complicate things. Placebos have been shown to make cold sufferers feel better about one-third of the time, demonstrating that if you believe some mysterious medication is helping you, then that alone may help you.

Using various medical studies, the USA Today story gives a brief assessment of popular over-the-counter and alternative remedies. The effects of decongestants “are modest at best,” while Vitamin C doesn’t decrease the chances of catching a cold and only reduces a cold’s duration by a few hours. Echinacea was proven no more effective than a placebo.

Zinc, on the other hand, seems to yield the best results. As reported by Healthland, the NY Times’ Well blog, and others, new research indicates taking zinc soon after the onset of a cold is a smart move. Here’s the lowdown from the Healthland post:

Meenu Singh and Rashmi Das at the Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India, conducted a detailed review of the available trials involving zinc’s effect on colds. Their data, published in the Cochrane Library, included 1,360 subjects and showed that zinc, if taken within 24 hours after the first signs of a cold, can shave off about a day of illness and lessen symptoms by about 40%.

So that’s that, right? Actually, again, there are some complications, along with a dosage of skepticism in the medical community. Rachel Vreeman, one of the authors of Don’t Swallow Your Gum! Myths, Half-Truths and Outright Lies About Your Body and Health, and one of the sources interviewed in the USA Today story, points out that the zinc research might not be entirely trustworthy, and that future research could very well offer different results. Why? For one thing, it’s difficult for researchers to compare zinc to placebos—because zinc’s awful taste tends to tip off patients as to who’s getting the real goods. A quote from Vreeman via USA Today:

“One of the big challenges with this research is that they have a hard time making a placebo that people actually believe in,” Vreeman says. “The bad taste of zinc, and the fact that it often makes people feel nauseous, are common, and tend to make it clear who is getting the zinc and who is getting the placebo.”

So where does that leave the common cold sufferer? Either frustrated and still stuck with an annoying achy cold, or nauseous and on the way to a speedy recovery.

The takeaway here is that if you believe a cold remedy helps, then take it. If you’re not sure what cold remedy to try, opt for one that tastes disgusting. That way, you’ll know it’s working.

MORE:
Cheapskate Wisdom … About Products Promising to Help You Avoid Catching a Cold

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