Meds that work
Many pharmaceutical companies now offer single products for multiple symptoms. Make sure you're not taking more medicine than you need.
Cold treatments tackle symptoms, not causes. Some combine a full range of cold fighters: nasal decongestants, cough suppressants, and expectorants that loosen mucus. Overuse of nasal decongestants can worsen congestion; stop after three days.
Aspirin and acetaminophen relieve cold and flu aches and reduce fever in flu.
Prescription drugs can shave a few days off flu duration and lessen symptoms. You must take them within 48 hours of symptom onset. Relenza is administered through an inhaler, and Tamiflu comes in pill form. The older drugs amantadine and rimantadine are still used, but cover fewer influenza strains. Don't bother with antibiotics, which attack bacteria, not viruses.
Flu shots are recommended for kids and seniors, those with impaired immune systems, and people who mix with large groups of people, such as teachers. Normally, you'd get the shot in November before flu season kicks in, but shortages have prompted officials to ask healthy recipients to wait until December.
What may work
Alternative treatments are largely driven by anecdotal evidence, as a flurry of contradictory studies find both efficacy and failure.
Know your zinc. That's the advice of George Eby, who patented the zinc acetate lozenge. His exhaustive Web site, www.coldcure.com, explains why. The study tally: Six say zinc cuts a cold's duration by up to 50 percent; five say it doesn't. Zinc zealots say the negative studies used ingredients that bind with zinc, hampering potency.
Megadoses of vitamin C won't help your cold, and too much can cause liver damage. The antioxidant does boost immunity, however, and the minimum daily requirement is essential.
Echinacea, made from various coneflowers, is purported to stimulate the immune system's fighter white-blood cells. A review of clinical trials reports that effectiveness of the herb is "suggestive at best."
Goldenseal, often combined with echinacea, is said to contain active antibacterial and antimicrobial alkaloids. Problem is, they aren't absorbed during digestion. Although sold widely, goldenseal is an endangered herb.
Oscillococcinum works on the theory of micro-dilution, that using infinitesimal amounts of what made you sick in the first place can cure you. Its primary ingredient is heart and liver cells from Muscovy ducks. Why a duck? Pourquoi pas le canard? is the attitude of French manufacturer Boiron. "Studies [published in the British Homeopathic Journal] show it just works," says a company spokesman. Caveat emptor.