For a lot of people suffering from a cold or sore throat, anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen may seem like a quick and easy remedy. A study funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), however, determined that ibuprofen or a combination of ibuprofen and paracetemol had no effect on respiratory tract infections, compared to paracetemol by itself.

“Paracetemol, ibuprofen or a combination of both are the most common courses of treatment for respiratory tract infections,” explained lead researcher Professor Paul Little. “However our research has shown that ibuprofen is likely to help children, and those with chest infections. This may have something to do with the fact the ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory.”

A research team from the University of Southampton recruited 899 patients who were being treated for symptoms related to a respiratory infection. Participants were divided into three groups in which they received ibuprofen, paracetemol, or a combination of the two. Medication was taken either as needed or four times a day.

Around 50 to 70 percent of the study’s participants who received ibuprofen or a combination of ibuprofen and paracetemol scheduled follow-up appointments with their health care providers after the treatment had little to no effect on cold or sore throat symptoms. Patients who returned to their physician a month after starting the drug regimen suffered from new or worsening symptoms. Researchers recommended against the use of steam inhalation seeing as it also had no effect and two percent of users experienced mild scalding.

“Clinicians should probably not advise patients to use steam inhalation in daily practice as it does not provide symptomatic benefit for acute respiratory infections and a few individuals are likely to experience mild thermal injury,” explained Prof. Little. “Routinely advising ibuprofen or ibuprofen and paracetemol together than just paracetemol is also not likely to be effective.”

According to the National Health Services, respiratory tract infections (RTI) include an infection of the sinuses, throat, airways, or lungs. They can be caused by a virus or bacteria, and tend to occur more in children than adults due to an undeveloped immune system. Other forms of treatment include rest, a balanced diet, and extra fluids.

“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,” Prof. Little added. “Although we have to be a bit cautious since these were surprise findings, for the moment I would personally not advise most patients to use ibuprofen for symptom control for coughs colds and sore throat.”

Source: McDermott L, Leydon G, Mullee M, Williamson I, Moore M, Little P. Ibuprofen, paracetamol, and steam for patients with respiratory tract infections in primary care: pragmatic randomised factorial trial. British Medical Journal. 2013.