Excerpt: 'Mayo Clinic's Book of Home Remedies'

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*Medical Help Most people recover from a common cold in about a week or two. If symptoms don't improve, see your doctor.

The common cold is a viral infection of your upper respiratory tract - your nose and throat. A common cold is usually harmless, although it may not feel that way. If it's not a runny nose, sore throat and cough, it's watery eyes, sneezing and congestion - or maybe all of the above.

Most adults likely experience a cold two to four times a year. Children, especially preschoolers, may get a cold as many as six to 10 times annually.

Don't waste your money

Over-the-counter cold preparations won't cure a common cold or make it go away any sooner. Here's what's known about common cold remedies:

Pain relievers. Products such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) may relieve fever, sore throat and headache. Overuse of these products can cause side effects. Be careful when giving acetaminophen to children because the dosing guidelines can be confusing. For instance, the infant-drop formulation is much more concentrated than is the syrup commonly used in older children. Don't give aspirin to children. It has been associated with Reye's syndrome - a rare but potentially fatal illness.

Decongestant nasal sprays. Adults shouldn't use decongestant drops or sprays for more than three days because prolonged use can cause chronic inflammation of the mucous membranes. And children shouldn't use decongestant drops or sprays at all. There's little evidence that they work in young children, and may cause side effects.

Cough syrups. The American College of Chest Physicians strongly discourages the use of cough syrups because they don't effectively treat the underlying cause of cough due to colds. Some syrups contain ingredients that may alleviate coughing, but the amounts are too small to do much good and may actually be harmful for children. The college recommends against using over-the-counter cough syrups or cold medicines for anyone younger than age 14. The Food and Drug Administration strongly recommends against giving nonprescription cough and cold medicines to children younger than age 2.

Is it a cold or the flu?

Cold: Runny nose, sneezing, chest congestion, sore throat (usually scratchy), cough, no fever or low fever, mild fatigue

Flu (influenza): Runny nose, sore throat and headache, cough, fever (usually over 101 F), chills, moderate to severe fatigue and weakness, achy muscles and joints

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