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Alternative remedies and some over-the-counter drugs can help when you're sick

 Some over-the-counter medicines can make you feel better as you wait for your body to beat a cold.
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Date published: 3/23/2008

When your persnickety, purist doctor won't prescribe antibiotics for your cold/flu/sinus infection/ear infection/bronchitis, what should you take?

Whatever makes you comfortable while your immune system fights off the virus, which can take a couple of weeks.

There are more than 800 over-the-counter cold remedies, and some of them have gone out of favor a bit, having been found not very effective, or worse. The cough suppressant dextromethorphan is being used by some kids to get high (turning them into "Robotards"--named after one of the more popular DM-containing products, Robitussin). And the popular decongestant sudefedrin is now being used to make methamphetamine.

Guaifenesin is a useful treatment for cold/flu/sinus problems. It will thin out the mucus and encourage drainage and expectoration. Guaifenesin is in many over-the-counter products. The highest dose is in Mucinex.

Discussing this mundane subject of how to treat a cold at a recent medical conference, Dr. William J. Heuston of the Medical University of South Carolina veered toward the alternative. He recommended a saline nasal spray/rinse administered using a Neti pot or sprayer (but with a 3 percent solution instead of the usual 0.9 percent). He also noted that some studies have shown benefit from the herb echinacea, vitamin C and zinc lozenges.

Another natural remedy is suggested by a study from Penn State College of Medicine: It showed the eons-old treatment of buckwheat honey to be superior to dextromethorphan as a cough suppressant. So there's a traditional, wholesome, safe alternative.

One other pearl from Dr Heuston is to "give your patients a realistic expectation" and let them know that after a bout of bronchitis, it is normal for the cough to linger for weeks or even months--especially if you are a smoker or work in a cold environment.

-Patrick Neustatter