July may not be peak season for the common cold, but the findings from two Cochrane review studies released Tuesday may be something you’ll want to store in the back of your mind for when the sniffling, sneezing and coughing do return later in the year. (Although, yes, it is possible to come down with a cold during the summer months, too.)
One review found that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) can relieve some, but not all, cold symptoms. The other found (albeit very, very tentatively) that the common cold may be staved off with daily consumption of garlic. This bulbous member of the onion family has long been alleged to have antiviral properties.
Both reviews were conducted by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international nonprofit organization that recruits teams of independent scientific reviewers to sort through all the clinical trials on a particular medical topic. After eliminating poorly designed studies, the reviewers painstakingly examine the rest and come up with a conclusion about what those good studies show.
The NSAIDs findings
For the NSAID review, the Cochrane team eliminated all but nine studies. They concluded from these that NSAIDS could improve pain-related cold symptoms such as headache, earache and muscle-and-joint pain — but not, interestingly, throat pain.
The reviewers found no good evidence that NSAIDs have any therapeutic effect on coughs or runny noses. The medications did appear to ease sneezing, however.
The garlic findings
After examining all the research on garlic and the common cold, the Cochrane reviewers found themselves left with only one relatively well-designed study. According to that study, people who took garlic supplements for 12 weeks were less likely to catch a cold than their peers who took a placebo pill. And if the garlic-taking participants did catch a cold, their symptoms tended to be of much shorter duration.
Taking garlic daily for 12 weeks also produced certain unwanted side effects: bad breath, body odor and, in some instances, a skin rash.
But, as the Cochrane reviewers pointed out, that study had several problems that weaken its findings. It was small, and the way the study defined cold symptoms was kind of fuzzy. How people were selected for the study wasn’t entirely clear, either.
With only that study to go by, “there is no conclusive evidence to recommend garlic supplements as a preventative or treatment option of the common cold,” concluded the reviewers.
Home remedies are still the best
As I reported last year, previous Cochrane review articles have found little evidence for the effectiveness of over-the-counter cough and cold medicines. So what should you do when you catch a bad cold? Home remedies are best, say the experts. Rest, drink plenty of fluids and, if you have a sore, irritated throat, gargle with warm salt water.
If all else fails, there’s always chicken soup.