Ibuprofen may lengthen the duration of a cold.
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Ibuprofen may lengthen the duration of a cold.

Colds can be painful. Headache and body chills are hard to handle for days at a time, and they may have you reaching for a painkiller such as ibuprofen to cope. A recent study looking at the use of common painkillers to deal with colds suggests that they might not be the best idea, according to 'BMJ' (formerly the 'British Medical Journal'). The study found that people who took ibuprofen instead of acetaminophen returned more often to the doctor with new or recurring symptoms. As a result, the lead author said he would not advise taking ibuprofen for the discomfort caused by colds and sore throats. 

In the study, more than 700 patients went to a general practitioner with respiratory infection tract symptoms and were prescribed one of three treatments: ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or a combination of ibuprofen and acetaminophen. Patients who took acetaminophen came back to their doctor with new or recurring symptoms 12 percent of the time, while those who took ibuprofen returned with issues 20 percent of the time. Those who took ibuprofen and acetaminophen together came back with problems 17 percent of the time.

The study's lead author, Dr. Paul Little, said the increase of return visits by people who took ibuprofen caused him concern. "This may have something to do with the fact that ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory," Little said, of the University of Southampton. "It is possible that the drug is interfering with an important part of the immune response and leads to prolonged symptoms or the progression of symptoms in some individuals."

He said he would not prescribe ibuprofen for most cases of sore throat or cold going forward, although other experts note this is a fairly small study that would require follow-up. "The idea that ibuprofen might help prevent recovery is something new, but I'm not sure that the data merits such a strong recommendation," said Dr. Norman Edelman, the senior medical adviser to the American Lung Association. "I would say it's an interesting study and I'd like to see more studies like it."

Nothing cures the common cold, but there are ways to cope with one, like drinking lots of hot liquids, sleeping plenty, and moving around. Always ask a doctor before taking painkillers to deal with symptoms and when you do, take them sparingly, given recent findings that too much acetaminophen has been shown to impact the liver and anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen have their own set of risks when taken in high doses. Besides, said Little: "The body is pretty good at fighting off infection, and we need not to get in its way by the medication we advise."