Ask Your Pharmacist

November 08, 2017

A bad cold is going around my workplace. Will an echinacea supplement help prevent me from catching it?


The common cold is a frequently occurring upper respiratory tract infection that will affect everyone at one time or another. Many different viruses can cause a common cold with the rhinovirus being responsible for most cases. When a patient contracts the virus, it will typically invade respiratory cells and affect the nose, throat and sinuses.  People will normally experience a scratchy throat and sneezing which progresses to inflammation of the ears and sinuses which gives a stuffy feeling. Colds are usually relatively mild and do not have long-term impacts on a patient’s health. They do, however, result in many lost days of work and school, and people are constantly asking pharmacists for advice on how to prevent them.

The common cold can occur at any time of the year, but normally peaks in April to May and September. Children are most commonly affected and can have as many as six to eight colds per year. An average adult will experience two to three colds per year and the average person over 60 experiences only one cold per year. Cold viruses are usually transmitted when secretions (mucus) from an infected individual (usually produced when coughing or sneezing) gets on the hands of another person who then rubs their eyes or nose or puts their hands in their mouth. This can occur through either direct contact with an infected individual or by touching things such as doorknobs, telephones or keyboards after an infected individual has touched them. It is also possible that the virus is transmitted through inhaling such secretions.

Avoiding contact with these secretions by keeping your hands clean is the most effective mode of preventing infection with the common cold. Hand washing with soap and water is the best way to accomplish this but most people don’t do a good enough job of it. It is recommended to first wet hands with clean, running water and then apply soap. You should then lather the soap by rubbing the hands together and be sure to lather the backs of the hands, between the fingers, and under the nails. Hands should be scrubbed for at least 20 seconds and then rinsed under clean, running water. Hands should then be dried using a clean towel or paper towel that has not been handled by an infected individual. 

If soap and water are not available, an alcohol based hand sanitizer is appropriate to kill virus or bacteria on your hands. With these products, people often don’t use enough to properly sanitize. It is recommended that three to five ml be applied to the palm of the hand (one teaspoon is about five ml) and rubbed all over the back of the hands, between the fingers and under the nails until the dry. This should take about 30 seconds. If your hands are dry after 10 seconds, you haven’t used enough.

There are no reliable studies that have demonstrated that echinacea is beneficial for cold prevention or treatment. Similarly, zinc has been shown to prevent the replication of rhinovirus in laboratory studies but there is no evidence that this works in people. A few studies have shown that oral zinc supplements may reduce the duration of a cold but none have shown that they will prevent it. It is recommended that people avoid zinc nasal products as there have been numerous reports of people experiencing a loss of smell that can be permanent. 

It is also worth noting that factors such as being cold, wet or under stress do not increase your chances of getting a cold. If you haven’t been exposed to the secretions of an infected individual, you won’t get a common cold.

Many patients also ask why a vaccine against the common cold hasn’t been produced. The development of this is highly unlikely as there are many different types of rhinoviruses and they don’t share enough in common to develop an effective vaccine against them.

I’ve barely scratched the surface on this topic (insert hand washing joke here). Talk to your pharmacist if you have questions about prevention techniques or need a cold product that’s right for you.

Ryan Kennedy (BSc., Doctorate of Pharmacy, MBA) is a pharmacist/owner at Jean Coutu in Saint John. His opinions expressed in this newspaper are published for educational and informational purposes only and are not intended as a diagnosis, treatment or as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Send your questions to