How to Treat a Cold Like a Pharmacist - Your Day by Day Guide

We all know that slight tickle in the back of our throats that brings with it a feeling of dread and the knowledge that soon we will be suffering from a cold.  Colds are common, affecting most people about twice per year. As much as modern medicine has advanced, treatments for the common cold haven’t changed much over the years and remain relatively ineffective. Most remedies boast a combination of three or four different medications to target various cold symptoms. These combinations are broader than needed, cost more due to niche marketing, and can set you up for some undesired side effects. The better way is to arm yourself with a little knowledge of the typical progression of symptoms and to treat a cold the same way a Pharmacist would.  

Days -2-0: The Calm Before the Storm

When you first notice cold symptoms it’s helpful to start taking zinc lozenges. Zinc has been shown to reduce the duration of colds, but only when started within the first 24 hours of symptoms.  This is because zinc may prevent the cold virus from multiplying and sticking to the mucous membranes in the throat.  Thus, it is critical to use a lozenge to allow the zinc to dissolve slowly and come into contact with more of the viruses.  However, zinc lozenges come with some downside that may not make taking them worth it.  Many people who take zinc experience nausea and temporary loss of taste. It is worth noting that some individuals should not take zinc so please check with a health professional before starting. 

Days 1-2: Major Congestion

You may be tempted to reach for the popular cold symptom-relieving medications such as DayQuil to help you get through the start of your cold. However, you would be better served by reaching for allergy meds instead. I know this seems a bit weird but trust me on this. Allergy medications contain antihistamines. Antihistamines dry up your secretions and have been shown to make the first few days of your cold far less painful (and require fewer tissues.) The best option is to select an antihistamine plus decongestant combination product. Now, there are two decongestant options available to you, pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine.  The pseudoephedrine products are far superior but are inconveniently tucked behind the counter. It is worth the extra two minutes of your time to get that behind the counter medicine.   

how to treat a cold day 1

There is one other medication option available to help ease the stuffy start to your cold.  Oxymetazoline nasal spray directly in the nose to reduce congestion. However, because this medication has such a strong effect you must limit use to 3 days. Any longer and you risk feeling much worse when stopping due to a phenomenon called rebound congestion. You can’t treat rebound congestion. You just have to live through it. Or you don’t if you only take oxymetazoline for 3 or fewer days.  

Days 3-5: Sore Throat and Cough

A few days into your cold is when the real suffering starts. You may be excited that you are no longer as congested, but the sore throat and cough can become more annoying. Mostly because medications to treat cough and sore throat don’t really work so self-care is your better treatment option. If you are suffering from a painful sore throat, you may find that taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen may help in addition to endlessly sucking on cough drops.

Saline nasal spray is another great tool to help with localized symptoms since you have reached the max days for using oxymetazoline. The last few days have focused on drying out your nasal passages, which can become uncomfortably dry now that you aren’t producing as much gross snot.

meds to treat cold day 3

Tea with honey is a great natural option to reduce coughing as the over counter cough suppressant meds don’t do more than reduce the balance in your bank account. The full directions for these cough suppressants recommend taking with a full glass of water. That seems like a reasonable recommendation until you realize that studies haven’t shown that taking the medication is any better than just drinking water.


Days 5-the end: Symptom Free-for-all

By now, you are really wishing this whole thing would get gone and I don’t blame you. The good news is it will be gone soon. The bad news is we have even fewer options to help treat this stage of a cold. Stay hydrated, treat your symptoms with whatever you can find, curl up with some nice warm broth, and wait for the end to come.  If for some reason, you aren’t starting to feel better after 7-10 days, or your symptoms are getting worse, it might be worth a trip to your doctor to make sure your cold hasn’t transformed into a secondary bacterial infection. 


Disclaimer: Always talk with a healthcare professional who knows your health history before starting any new medications to make sure it is appropriate for you.


how to treat a cold like a pharmacist

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