Influenza – Which remedies can help against colds

The flu epidemic has started in Germany. Unlike the dangerous influenza viruses, flu infections are harmless, but coughing, sniffing and hoarseness can be very annoying. Medical journalist Christina Sartori explains which remedies doctors recommend – and which not.

Christian Floto in conversation with Christina Sartori

In flu infections, only the symptoms can be alleviated. (imago/Paul von Stroheim)

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The flu epidemic, it’s rolled into Germany. But it’s not just the dangerous influenza viruses that are on their way – there are also many viruses that can cause a flu-like infection. Unlike the real flu, a flu infection is not dangerous – but: if you catch it, you are sometimes put out of action for days. Many remedies are offered that are said to help with coughs, colds and hoarseness. My colleague, the medical journalist Christina Sartori, took a closer look at how well they work….

Christian Floto: What really helps against coughs, sniffles, hoarseness?

Christina Sartori: There is no remedy directly against the cold viruses, but you can do something about the symptoms: You can take a painkiller such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or acetylsalicylic acid for the headaches and limb pains, which can also help in mild fever. And against a stuffy nose that won’t let you sleep, decongestant nasal sprays can help a little.

However, you may not take it longer than a week – otherwise the nasal mucous membrane gets used to it and when you then want to stop the spray, you’re really fed up with it – and you go back to the spray – a kind of dependency. So: One week at the most.

Floto: Can nasal sprays protect against a cold?

Sartori: Sprays for the nose and throat contain certain substances designed to protect against viruses: The idea is that they coat the mucous membrane of the nose or throat so that viruses penetrate less easily. But the independent journal “Good pills, bad pills” has found out: There are hardly any studies on this question, and if there are, the studies are usually poorly done, with very few participants, for example. Or you can see virtually no difference in the effect between study participants who try the spray – and those who don’t use it. So it probably doesn’t work.

A cup of chamomile tea with lemons – No saviour either (imago stock&people / Blickwinkel McPhoto / Otfried Schreiter)

Floto: Zinc and vitamin C as cold remedies?

Sartori: According to what you see in studies, it doesn’t help if you realize: Oh, there comes a cold and then quickly swallows zinc or vitamin C tablets or powder. That doesn’t affect the symptoms or the duration of the cold. Also for Echinacea, a herbal active ingredient, there is so far no clear evidence that it alleviates or weakens a cold.

Floto: And these cold juices that are always advertised in pharmacies?

Sartori: Experts have been discouraging them for years: Because they often contain very different active ingredients, some of which have opposite effects, make you sleepy and stimulate you, for example – which is very unfavorable. So you can save yourself a lot of money.

Floto: What to do about the annoying cough?

Sartori: Cough juices, which suppress the cough should not be taken as a rule – because the cough is actually useful because the body gets rid of the superfluous mucus in the lungs. Vegetable-based mucolytic preparations, such as thyme and ivy, have slight positive effects – but the data are actually weak here too.

A flu can put you out of action (picture alliance / dpa / imageBROKER / Jochen Tack)

Floto: So then: Grandma’s household remedy: Inhale and drink tea by the liter?

Sartori: If you are accurate, there are no good studies that show that inhaling or drinking litres of tea has a positive effect on a cold. But: Many people say they feel better after inhaling, they can breathe more freely – so you can definitely try it out. Many patients also find drinking tea pleasant – but there is no medical reason why one should suddenly pour several liters into oneself, one does not have to force oneself to do anything.

Floto: Is there not a single unqualified recommendation?

Sartori: Wash hands. Because the cold viruses get into our bodies through our hands and – without us noticing – we often touch our faces during the day. That’s why it’s a good habit to wash your hands when you come home.

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