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Runny nose, stuffy head, congestion, sore throat, hay fever, asthma attack – the annoying symptoms of a cold war waging closer to home. To varying degrees, all people are forced to combat the dreaded cold and its virulent relatives. Although it has long been said that there is no cure for the common cold, sufferers seem willing to try anything to breathe easy again, collectively spending billions of dollars each year on cold-related medicines, cough suppressants, antihistamines, asthma drugs and antibiotics. Despite controversial data regarding the efficacy of these drugs, people casually consume them, only to discover that drugs’ harmful side effects are a heavy price to pay for temporary freedom.

Cold and Allergy Medicines

Because a cold is caused by a virus, it cannot be cured by medication. Cold medicines may help suppress symptoms, but the cold virus continues to roam inside the body. Notwithstanding this fact, potentially harmful cold medicines abide in most household medicine cabinets. Beside their questionable ability to offer relief, cold medicines may contain drugs such as triprolidine, pseudoephedrine, guanifenesin, phenylpropanolomine and pheynylephrine. Many cold medicines combine several of these chemicals into one tablet, giving the false impression that more is better, when in actuality, they merely increase the risk of unwanted side effects. The damaging results of these drugs may include high blood pressure (especially dangerous for people with heart disease, diabetes or thyroid disease), confusion, nervousness, dry mouth, constipation, difficulty urinating, decreased sweating and worsening og glaucoma.

Unaware of these side effects, many people also mistakenly use cold medicines to regularly treat allergies. Nasal sprays containing ingredients such as pseudoephedrine hydrochloride or other antihistamines may prove harmful to sufferers of allergies. Using these ingredients may lead to rebound congestion, increased nasal stuffiness and permanent damage to the membranes lining the nose.

Cough Suppressants

Just as a runny nose promotes beneficial drainage, a fact ignored by many, a cough can also be a productive way to naturally remove harmful material. Although a dry or painful cough may be a sign of a more serious condition, most coughs should not be depressed. Adverse effects of cough suppressants such as hydrocodone, dextromethorphan and phenyltoloxamine include skin rash, dizziness, nausea, nasal congestion, constipation, dry mouth, difficulty urinating, blurred vision and headache.

The combination of iodinated glycerol and codeine, commonly promoted as a cough suppressant, should especially be avoided. An unpublished study performed under the direction of the National Toxicology Program (Department of Human Services) found that Iodinated glycerol may cause illnesses as severe as cancer. In general, coughs are most effectively combated by clear liquids, which help thin mucus and promote effortless breathing.


Ironically, some drugs prolong cold symptoms and antihistamines are a prime example of drugs people wrongly assume can effectively treat any illness. Antihistamines can actually make a cold or cough worse by thickening nasal secretions and drying mucous membranes. They can also cause serious side effects including confusion, short-term memory loss, disorientation, dry mouth, constipation, difficulty urinating, enlarge prostate, increased body temperature, unusual bleeding, ringing in the ears, stomach upset and worsening of glaucoma.

The antihistmaine hydroxyzine, used to treat itching and hives, may also cause restlessness, seizures, trembling or shakiness. Another antihistamine, diphenhydramine, may cause unusually fast heartbeat, increased sensitivity to the sun, unusual bleeding, sore throat, nervousness, restlessness, irritability and ringing in the ears.

Adverse cardiovascular effects are extremely rare, but patients using the antihistamine astemizole have reportedly experienced cardiac arrest, ventricular arrhtymias and even death as a result of the drug.

Asthma Drugs

Although its symptoms resemble that of the cold, asthma is a delicate condition that must be carefully monitored and treated. Drugs such as aminophyllines, theophylline and oxtriphylline are frequently used to treat symptoms of chronic asthma, bronchitis and emphysema, including difficult breathing, sneezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath.

Asthma drugs open airways in the lungs and increase airflow, making breathing easier, but this process is not without risk. The body can only tolerate a specified amount of an asthma drug. Too little may bring on an asthma attack; too much can lead to seizures, irregular heart rhythms, pounding heartbeat. Adverse effects include bloody stools, confusion, diarrhea, dizziness, flushed skin, headache, increased urination, loss of appetite, muscle twitching, nausea, trembling, trouble sleeping, vomiting of blood, heartburn, etc.

The asthma drug pirbuterol can cause or worsen high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease. Inhaled drugs, such as albuterol and terbutaline, have been found to cause tremors, jitters, nervousness, and in extreme cases, benign tumors in the ligaments and heart disease.


While used to treat diverse bacterial infections, antibiotics are also prescribed to address the common cold. Unfortunately, antibiotics are often proved unnecessary, bringing harmful side effects instead of cure. A recent study found while their use has decreased from past decades, it is estimated that fifty-one percent  patients who saw doctors for treatment of the common cold were unnecessarily given a prescription of antibiotics.

Since the cold and flu are caused by viruses, they cannot be cured by antibiotics. Antibiotics, when used incorrectly, can seriously damage the body’s immune system. Side effects of antibiotics include allergic reactions, diarrhea, skin rash, abnormal weakness, joint and muscle pain, nausea or vomiting and bleeding. In extreme cases, a simple cold may even develop into pneumonia because the antibiotics makes the body less resistant to a bacterial super infection.

When given an antibiotic, the body can also develop a bacterial resistance to the antibiotic, making them useless in future instances when they could have proven effective. After many congressional hearings regarding these harmful side effects, it has become the general consensus that forty to sixty percent of all antibiotics are misprescribed.

In Conclusion

As evidenced, the harmful side effects far outweigh the benefits of medically treating cold-related symptoms. Despite this unsettling fact, cold, cough, allergy and asthma sufferers can still find relief. In many cases, common sense can prevent the common cold and its symptoms from ever attacking. People who don’t smoke, for instance, are less likely to catch a cold because smoke paralyzes the hair-like cells that clean out the body’s airways. Frequently washing one’s hands is another effective way to prevent colds.

Proper diet in accordance with nutritional immunology, adequate amounts of liquid, and ample rest are also effective methods used to both prevent and treat cold symptoms. By taking preventative measures, even those most prone to attack can outwit and overcome the cold war offenders.



1) “Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidence”. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association Journal. 186 (3): 190–99

2) “Appropriate Antibiotic Use for Acute Respiratory Tract Infection in Adults: Advice for High-Value Care From the American College of Physicians and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention”. Annals of Internal Medicine. 164 (6): 425–34.

3) “Pharmacologic and Nonpharmacologic Treatment for Acute Cough Associated With the Common Cold: CHEST Expert Panel Report”. Chest. 152 (5): 1021–37

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