Keeping it old school with the common cold

January 26, 2012|Alicia Notarianni | Making Ends Meet

"It's a cold," Dr. Babin would say in his thick Romanian accent. "They'll feel better in a week and a half or 10 days."

I guess the redundant axiom was the pediatrician's droll attempt to humor my mom. She'd receive the words from a healthy distance across the office as five snot-nosed, coughing kids swung from her purse strap and tugged at her pant legs.

She was a patient woman, and apparently wise, because eventually she stopped paying for the sage advice and began dispensing it herself.

"Did you catch a cold, honey? You'll feel better in a week and a half or 10 days," she'd say.

She knew there was no quick fix. My vocal and persistent great-aunt Edith would lobby to get us antibiotics. But my mom knew antibiotics killed bacteria, not the viruses that caused colds. Dr. Babin had told her many times.

So she'd set us up in the den with a hanky, a humidifier, a cup of ginger ale and a bowl of chicken noodle soup. Sometimes she'd take a break from her housework and play a few card games of Go Fish or War with us, or she'd read us the newspaper comics — the "funnies," we called them.

Some medical treatments and procedures have evolved with time. For example, nearly all of my early scrapes and burns were remedied with a bright red-orange coating of Mercurochrome. Yet my children have never heard of the stuff. In fact, I've read that the FDA restricted its use until someone proves that its antiseptic benefits outweigh the risk of mercury toxicity. (Am I glowing?)

But as it turns out decades later, Dr. Babin and my mom were pretty spot on when it comes to the common cold.

I am not a doctor, and I won't play one in the newspaper. Information at says cold symptoms — sore throat; stuffy, runny nose; cough; and mild fever — are caused by viruses, which don't respond to antibiotics. No change there in the past 30 years. The site also says that symptoms generally begin to improve around the one week mark. I'll read between the lines. By a week and a half or 10 days, you're likely good to go.

You can shell out copays for each member of your family to visit the doctor for every annoying case of the sore throat and sniffles if it gives you peace of mind. You could hit the pharmacy and fill a basket with name brand concoctions that'll cost you a bundle. Or you could hunker down, whip up a dose of TLC, wait it out and keep the money in your wallet.

Here are some thoughts to make the week and a half or 10 days less expensive and more bearable:

 Many doctors question the effectiveness of cough preparations. Plus the FDA and manufacturers do not recommend over-the-counter cough and cold medicines for children younger than 4. To alleviate a cough, try water or fruit juice. To soothe a sore throat, gargle with warm salt water. Warbling the silliest tune you know while you gargle is a guaranteed spirit-lifter.

  While decongestants shrink mucous membranes to make breathing easier, most are recommended only for a few days. Generic saline nasal sprays, on the other hand, can also open breathing passages and may be used freely.

 Good ol' chicken soup is comforting, plus the steam helps break up nasal congestion.

  Finally, you feel like boiled spit and you are contagious the first few days of a cold. Stay home and rest. You might feel better a little sooner and you won't spread the love.

Alicia Notarianni is a reporter for The Herald-Mail. Her email address is

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