Can You Speed Up Recovery From Colds and Flu?


Published: 21 July 2018

Are there evidence-based strategies for recovering from colds, influenza and upper respiratory inflammation or infection more quickly?

A review by Allan and Arroll (2014) found that there is a need for more high-quality research on treatments for common colds. This is largely due to current evidence often being low-quality or unreliable.

Preventing the Spread of Cold and Flu

To prevent the spread of infection, you are encouraged to:

  • Stay home whilst sick
  • Perform correct hand hygiene
  • Participate in other hygiene practices such as waste disposal (e.g. immediately place used tissues in bins)
  • Avoid sharing items that may be contaminated (e.g. bed sheets, plates, forks, clothes)
  • Perform correct coughing/sneezing practices (aim to cough into a tissue which is then placed into the bin)
  • Use a tissue rather than a handkerchief
  • Cough/sneeze away from other people if you do not have a tissue - you may need to aim into your upper clothing sleeve
  • Wear a face mask if you have to go near other people
  • Take a plastic bag to act as a bin for used tissues
  • If you cannot access a sink with soap and running water, use alcohol hand gel/sanitiser
  • Remember that you are likely to be infectious for a week after being sick.

(Better Health Channel 2021; SA Health 2007)

Influenza Vaccination

A child being given a vaccination

One of the mainstays of preventing the flu and associated complications (e.g. bronchitis, pneumonia) is to get the annual flu vaccination, which is ‘recommended for all people from six months of age’ (Better Health Channel 2021).

Each year, the very contagious influenza virus infects many people. The flu is spread by contact with fluids from coughs and sneezes, and may cause symptoms such as a dry cough, fever, aching body, decreased appetite, sore throat, runny nose, nasal congestion, chills or tiredness (Better Health Channel 2021).

Generally, flu symptoms take around eight days to subside, however, the fatigue and coughing may remain for another week or longer.

Further information on the flu vaccination can be found on the Australian Immunisation Handbook website.

Evidence-Based Cold and Flu Treatments

Better Health Channel (2021) recommends resting up, hydrating, using saline nasal spray/drops (for congestion), gargling warm water for sore throats, avoiding smoking, using lozenges and checking with your GP and pharmacist before taking any medications or if you have any concerns.

For non-traditional treatments for children with colds (aged older than one year), honey may be provide effective relief for coughs when given at bedtime (Allan & Arroll 2014).

Allan and Arroll (2014) also point to physical interventions (e.g. correct handwashing) and zinc supplements as some of the best-evidenced prevention techniques for a cold.

For treatment support, they found the use of acetaminophen (paracetamol), nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (for pain and fever) and possibly antihistamine-decongestant combinations and intranasal ipratropium to be effective, with ibuprofen appearing to be 'superior to acetaminophen for the treatment of fever in children’ (Allan & Arroll 2014).

A systematic review by Grande et al. (2016) evaluated whether exercising before the flu vaccination could help to prevent adults from getting the flu or further complications. They found no benefits or harms in exercising before the flu vaccination. More research is needed on this topic, with higher quality evidence that includes larger sample sizes.

A systematic review by Kenealy and Arroll (2013) found there to be no evidence that antibiotics are beneficial for treating colds or ‘acute purulent rhinitis’ (coloured nasal mucus).

It was concluded that antibiotics for common colds in adults are actually linked to adverse outcomes and that antibiotics can cause adverse effects for participants of all ages when administered for acute purulent rhinitis (Kenealy & Arroll 2013). One of the adverse effects of antibiotics is diarrhoea.

As colds are viral in nature and there are concerns for antibiotic resistance from overuse, it is clear that antibiotics are not appropriate to treat colds.

There is not enough high-quality evidence to conclude whether over-the-counter cough medicines are effective for acute coughs (Smith, Schroeder &\ Fahey 2014).

Nasal saline spray was found in a systematic review by King et al. (2015) to ‘possibly’ improve symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection, but there needs to be further research of high quality on this intervention to guide evidence-based practice.

Despite the evidence quality being described as ‘low’, it is still worth acknowledging that a systematic review by (Hao, Dong & Wu 2015) found probiotics to be beneficial for upper respiratory tract infections. Compared to a placebo, probiotic treatment reduced ‘the number of participants experiencing episodes of acute URTI, the mean duration of an episode of acute URTI, antibiotic use and cold-related school absence’ (Hao et al. 2015).

Additional Resources