Do Over The Counter Cold and Flu Medications Really Help?

By Dr. Edward R. Rosick, DO, MPH, DABIHM

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Winter time here in the midwest brings certain inevitabilities – cold, snow, overcast skies and a huge increase in the cases of colds, upper respiratory infections and influenza that I see in the office. The reasons for this spike are multifactorial, but certainly include factors such as people being in enclosed spaces with no open windows to bring in fresh air, lack of sunlight…which translates to lack of vitamin D…and an overall stress on everyone’s immune system as we try to slog through freezing cold days and hope for an early spring.

Another thing we see this time of year is an increase in advertisements for over-the-counter (OTC) cold and flu remedies that you can buy without a doctor’s prescription. On TV and radio, in newspapers and magazines, it seems like you can’t get away from ads blaring the superiority of one remedy over the other, or how this OTC can help you feel better “fast and get back to the work that needs getting back to!” But like most advertisements, there’s sometimes very little in the facts underlying the claims, because the reality is that OTC medications do nothing at all to help you prevent or even get rid of your cold and flu any faster than nothing at all.

What is the purpose of OTC cold and flu medications?

OTC cold and flu medications all generally carry the same basic ingredients: a decongestant to help alleviate nasal and sinus congestion, an antihistamine to help treat a runny nose and sneezing, and some type of pain reliever for body aches, sore throats, and headaches. Yet while it’s nice to be able to take something that can possibly help ease the symptoms of a cold or flu, these type of drugs don’t come without risk. For those suffering from high blood pressure, anxiety, or insomnia, decongestant medications can often make those problems worse. Antihistamines can make you drowsy and lethargic and also cause a dry mouth. And pain relievers like acetaminophen can be dangerous for people with liver issues, while ibuprofen can cause stomach upset and interact dangerously with common prescription medications like coumadin. In terms of use of cold medications in young children, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has come out and stated that “FDA strongly recommends that over the counter (OTC) cough and cold products should not be used for infants and children under 2 years of age because serious and potentially life-threatening side effects could occur.” (1)

“That’s great news,” some of you might be grumbling. “If these over the counter medicines can’t help me or my kids get over my cold or flu, is there anything I can take that can help?” Fortunately, the answer is yes – and that answer comes from something that many of you might have in your refrigerator already. Probiotics, found in foods like yogurt and also available as supplements, are the good bacteria found in our digestive system which perform multiple positive things, with one of those being keeping our immune system healthy and intact and potentially protecting us from getting sick with colds and the flu.

The role of probiotics for immune health

But it’s not just me saying this: There are numerous scientific studies showing that positive, beneficial roles that probiotics play in keeping us healthy. A recent review article in the peer-reviewed journal Clinical Microbiology Reviews was an in-depth study on the ways in which probiotics can protect us against a variety of diseases(2). Another recent article in the French medical journal, Medicine et Maladies Infectieuses, examined the ways in which probiotics can help boost our immunity against respiratory infections (3). For those of you skeptics who only believe in randomized, placebo controlled trials, how about these studies:

One published in 2010 in the British Journal of Nutrition showing that, in a randomized, double blind study, probiotics were shown to reduce the amount of time elderly (median age 76 years) subjects were sick with respiratory infections.(4) In terms of preventing colds in children, a recent review article looking at the results of 12 well controlled clinical trials showed that, in the authors own words, “…probiotic supplementation was found to be a safe and effective therapeutic tool in preventing gastrointestinal and respiratory infection in this population [children in day care centers].”(5)

Finally, studies have shown that just certain parts of probiotics can have beneficial effects. A recent article in the journal, Probiotics and Health, showed that mice given a supplement called del-IMMUNE V® – containing active parts of the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus V – had a statistically significant increase in blood levels of chemicals known as cytokines, which are known to be part of the immune system when compared to mice that were not given the probiotic formulation.(6)


The bottom line, at least to this doctor, is clear: while OTC medications can potentially help out with some of the minor symptoms of colds and flu, probiotics are the far superior choice in both combating colds and flu and preventing you from getting sick in the first place.

For a one-two punch in fighting flu and cold throughout the entire winter bug season, many physicians recommend that del-IMMUNE V® supplements for immediate immune system support be combined with DPS Throat Spray which works in the “adaptive” (long-term) immune system. DPS Throat SprayTM is a proprietary extract of bovine colostrum (also known as “first milk”) that contains immune-enhancing factors called proline-rich polypeptides (PRPs).

1. OTC Cough and cold products: Not for infants and children under 2 years of age. U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

2. Moai VL, Servin AL. Anti-infective Activities of Lactobacillus Strains in the Human Intestinal Microbiota: from Probiotics to Gastrointestinal Anti-infective Biotherapeutic Agents. Clin Micro Reviews 2014; 27(2): 167-199.

3. Alexandre Y, Blay GL, Boisrame-Gastrin S et al. Probiotics: A New Way to Fight Baterical Pulmonary Infections? Med et Maladies Infect 2014; 44: 9-17.

4. Guillemard E, Tondu F, Lacoin F, Schrezenmeir J. Consumption of a fermented dairy product containing the probiotic Lactobacillus case DN-114011 reduces the duration of respiratory infections in the elderly in a randomized controlled trial. Br J Nutri 2010; 103(1): 58-68.

5. Weizman Z. The role of probiotics and prebiotics in the prevention of infections in child day-care centres. Benef Micro 2014; 12: 1-3.

6. Sichel L, Timoshok NA, Pidgorskyy VS, Spivak NY. Study of interferonogenous activity of the new probiotic formulation del-IMMUNE V. Probiotics and Health 2013; 1(2): 1-6.

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