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Biomedical Research Health and Disease

How Cold Medicine May Be Contributing to the Spread of Disease

Cold medicines are amongst the most commonly prescribed drugs by American doctors, however, healthcare professionals are beginning to acknowledge the many flaws with these types of medications. The first and most notable being increased transmission of infection, and the second being that medicated individuals may stay sick for longer. Despite these flaws, these drugs are effective at alleviating symptoms, so whether or not to go through with taking them is ultimately a personal choice.

Got an annoying cold or nasty virus? Your first instinct may be to reach for some Dayquil or Tylenol, medicines that are considered to be purely beneficial and a trick to feel-better instantly. However, doctors are just now realizing that these drugs might not be all that they seem.

Abstract

Cold medicines are amongst the most commonly prescribed drugs by American doctors, however, healthcare professionals are beginning to acknowledge the many flaws with these types of medications. The first and most notable being increased transmission of infection, and the second being that medicated individuals may stay sick for longer. Despite these flaws, these drugs are effective at alleviating symptoms, so whether or not to go through with taking them is ultimately a personal choice. 

What really is cold medicine?

Cold medicines, also referred to as fever reducers, are made up of 4 key parts: decongestants, antihistamines, cough suppressants, and pain relievers. The decongestants work to relieve sinus congestion by narrowing blood vessels within the nose, antihistamines boost the immune system by blocking histamine, cough suppressants clear away mucus within the lungs, and pain relievers work within your nervous system to stop pain signals from getting to the brain. In addition to these 4 parts, cold medicines hinder the production of prostaglandins, which controls a hypothetical thermostat within our brains. 

Some of the most commonly used of these drugs include: acetaminophens such as tylenol, ibuprofens such as Advil and Motrin, and aspirins (Mui, 1).  

What’s the catch?

Despite the obvious benefits of cold medicines, it is important to recognize their inherent drawbacks. Among the most notable of these downsides is that they treat symptoms, but not the actual disease. While this may seem beneficial, it can actually be extremely harmful in terms of containment of the disease because ill individuals who have taken one of these medications may feel well enough to participate in normal day-to-day activities such as work or school. And, because such activities often require close contact with peers, they are putting everyone around them at a higher risk for catching the disease. In fact, it was found that the use of antipyretics, a type of fever reducer, increases transmission of the flu virus by about 5% each year, which translates to about 1,000 more deaths (Earn, 1). 

In addition to more people catching the given disease, cold medications will actually cause individuals to stay sick for longer. This is because fevers are crucial to fight infection. An  increased body temperature creates an inhospitable environment for viruses or bacteria to grow and survive, therefore eliminating the illness. Therefore, while one might feel worse, they are actually at a better position to fight off whatever is making them sick (NIH, 1).

The bottom line

It is ultimately your choice whether or not to medicate for a cold or fever, but next time you consider it, be courteous of those around you by recognizing that just because you are feeling better, does not mean you are truly better. Plus, if you are continuously taking these medications throughout the course of an illness and do not seem to be getting any better, you might want to lay off the medicines and consider other forms of treatment such as hydration and sleep.

Lily Kangas, Youth Medical Journal 2022 

References

“Fever.” MedlinePlus.Gov, medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003090.htm#:%7E:text=Fever%20is%20an%20important%20part,fevers%20with%20 mid%20viral%20illnesses. Accessed 26 July 2021.

Mui, Katie. “Should You Treat a Fever.” GoodRx.Com, http://www.goodrx.com/blog/should-you-treat-a-fever. Accessed 26 July 2021.

Watson, Traci Usa Today. “USA TODAY.” USATODAY, 22 Jan. 2014, eu.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/01/21/fever-medications-flu-spread/4660427.

By Lily Kangas

Lily Kangas is a student at the Head-Royce School in Oakland, California. She is interested in all STEM fields, specifically medicine, neuroscience, and psychology.

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