Does cold medication make your illness last longer?

I searched the threads and I don’t think this has been discussed before.

Is it possible that taking cold medication will make your illness last longer? Seems to me that thousands of years of evolution have decided that a fever and sneezing and coughing are a pretty good way to get rid of an infection, so if you take medicine and surpress these effects, won’t it negatively effect your bodies recovery period? Is it more accurate to say that the symptoms are just an unpleasent side effect, and even when the symptoms of the cold are surpressed, the macrophages and killer-T cells and all do their job at the same rate?

Well, it can definately extend your perception of your illness - the side effects from the meds can be a lot worse than the symptoms from a tapering-off cold. I’d be interested in the actual answer, however.

Although to an individual, of course, without the symptoms it dosen’t really matter - in other word, a “cold” to individual human perception is just the symptoms, so if you feel okay and not sniffly or feverish or whatever, it dosen’t really matter anyway, right?

Well, a study on children found that two primary ingredients in most cold medications (dextromethorphan and diphenhydramine) have no more significant effect on coughing than simple sugar-water. It would seem, then, that part of your question is moot. I don’t know about lowering the fever, though.

I’ll add something that may not help the question, but I’d like to see it proved/debunked. I’ve heard from some alterna-medicine sources that every degree of fever allows the (white blood cells?) to travel/work approx. 4x faster than they would otherwise. By trying to reduce the fever, you’re essentially keeping the things from doing their job as efficiently as they might otherwise.

In the medical field, we often tell patients that left alone, their cold will last a week. If we treat it, it will last 7 days.

Anecdotal evidence only, but I read about the infection-fighting benefits of a fever some years ago, when my children were small. What I learned was that a primary function of fever was to raise the body temperature above the survival limit of the infecting organism. It is news to me that the efficiency level of white blood cells is also increased with fever - maybe it means that fewer bacteria require attacking, because they’re dead.

Anyway, I told my three children about this, and we decided to conduct an ongoing experiment when they were sick. When they ran a fever, they could choose to have a fever-reducer or to let their bodies slug it out with the infection. I told them that if they became too uncomfortable, they could always have the medicine, but they never asked for it. It made them feel courageous to tough it out, and they liked the image of their immune systems behaving like action heros. I monitored their fevers to make sure they did not get out of control, of course.

My personal observation was that not using fever medication shortened their illnesses by 1 to 2 days. I also think a factor with children is that when given medication they feel better for a while, become more active and overtax their bodies, prolonging the time necessary to overcome the infection.

Anecdotal evidence: in the past, when I got a cold it settled in my chest, and I was left with a cough that went on for at least 10 days, mostly longer.

Two years ago I was one day into a bad cold when, for reasons too boring to go into, I got called upon to put in a four hour stretch of genuine hard labor in an overheated setting. Lifting and hauling and shoving furniture around and such – quite a change from my normal desk job. I felt punk when I started, and punk & horribly hot all day, and unbelievably sore when I went to bed that night…but when I woke up, the cold was gone. Not even a sniffle.

I thought this was amazing, though possibly coicidental. So the next time I came down with a cold I deliberately set out to duplicate the ‘physical labor’ cure. I didn’t have an hot location to work in, but it was a warm Indian Summer day and I spent it raking and bagging leaves and the trillions of useless-because-they-are-diseased apples that the aged remnants of an apple orchard drop in our back yard each year. Result: the cold wasn’t completely gone the next morning, but it was vastly improved. Like jumping from day 1 to day 5 of a cold, skipping the worst of it.

The next cold I was feeling lazy, so I just went to my health club and hung out in the steam room for a few hours. Result: no effect on my cold at all.

So…I guess it isn’t just being hot, it has to be internally generated heat or something.