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Oral antihistamine-decongestant-analgesic combinations for the common cold

De Sutter AIM, van Driel ML, Kumar AA, Lesslar O, Skrt A
Published Online: 
15 February 2012

The common cold is probably the most common illness known and usually presents with a range of symptoms such as sore throat, nasal stuffiness and discharge, sneezing and cough. On average, young children have six to eight colds per year and adults have two to four. It is caused by viruses (more than 200 viruses have been implicated) and is generally not a serious condition which usually resolves by itself within one to two weeks. However, the common cold has a large impact on time lost from work or school and causes substantial discomfort.

As there is no cure for the common cold, only symptomatic treatment is available. Many people use oral over-the-counter (OTC) medications that contain antihistamines, decongestants, analgesics or a combination to self treat the symptoms of the common cold. Our review of 27 trials with over 5000 participants shows some benefit of these treatments in adults and older children with regards to general recovery and symptoms. The combination of antihistamine-decongestant is the most effective combination but many people experience adverse effects such as drowsiness, dry mouth, insomnia and dizziness. There is no evidence for a beneficial effect in young children. The included trials studied very different populations, treatments and outcomes but overall the methodological quality was acceptable.