Natural Remedies: What Works, What Doesn’t
Practically everyone will battle colds and the flu at some point in time. The average adult is sick with the common cold (with symptoms like sore throats, coughs, and mild fevers) two to four times each year. Another 15% to 20% get the flu. Since these illnesses are caused by a viruses, they can't be stopped completely. But you can relieve your symptoms. And since these are such common ailments, there is no shortage of remedies meant to relieve them.
The big question remains—which natural treatments work, and which are a waste of time? Our medical experts review many popular home remedies from zinc and garlic to Echinacea and saline drops, and they offer useful, factual information you can use to keep yourself and your family healthy.
Does Echinacea Work?
In America, the herbal supplement Echinacea has been surging in popularity. In 2009 alone, US consumers purchased $132 million worth of the stuff. It is commonly touted as a natural health supplement that is thought to reduce the duration of respiratory infections and ease their symptoms. But does it really work?
Echinacea is a traditional medicine used by some Native American tribes for a variety of ailments, including scarlet fever and syphilis. The herb has been used for more than 400 years in this way, according to archaeological evidence. In the 19th century, a dubious salesman named H.C.F. Meyer began to make claims that the herb could cure just about anything—including cancer. Its popularity declined in the US in the early 20th century, but surged in Germany, where most clinical trials of the herb are still conducted today.
Overall, the results of Echinacea trials seeking to verify its use as a cold or flu remedy have been discouraging. The trials have suffered from weak analysis, with many of the best-controlled and most robust studies showing negative results. In addition, this supplement may interact with ongoing medication, which means its use should be discussed with your doctor. The National Institute of Health warns that in one large trial, Echinacea seemed to increase the risk of allergic rashes in children.
Does Zinc Work?
Zinc is another popular, natural remedy for colds and the flu. In 2014, American consumers spent about $108 million on zinc supplements. But there is real reason to exercise caution when it comes to zinc.
A study out of Great Britain found that zinc supplements in high doses may shorten a cold by almost three days. While other research has not been able to produce the same results, that certainly does sound impressive. In addition, zinc seems to have an antiviral effect, at least in laboratory conditions.
But before you rush out for zinc at the start of your next cold, consider some of the potential drawbacks of consuming zinc in high doses. Zinc comes in two basic forms. It can either be taken orally as a lozenge, syrup, or tablet, or it can be swabbed in the nose (intranasal zinc). The intranasal form is often discouraged because of a scary side-effect—it can cause you to lose your sense of smell, potentially permanently. The Food and Drug Administration outlawed several zinc nasal products after 130 consumers reported a loss of their sense of smell after use.
When taken orally, zinc has several other potential drawbacks. Too much of it can cause copper deficiency, reduce HDL (good) cholesterol from the bloodstream, increase the risk of prostate cancer, and interact with other medications in potentially dangerous ways. Perhaps most hazardous of all, some oral zinc products contain cadmium, which at high doses can lead to kidney failure.
Do Vitamins Prevent Cold and Flu?
When it comes to upper respiratory infections, can vitamins make a difference? It may depend on what you're taking.
Two vitamins have come to the forefront as possible cold- and flu-stoppers. Both vitamin C and vitamin D have been studied as potentially preventative treatments to these diseases. Both seem to have some effectiveness in certain ways. Whether they improve the immune system's ability to fight disease is still being studied, but here’s what we’ve learned so far.
On its surface, vitamin C has a lot going for it. It is a necessary nutrient found in lots of the foods we eat on a regular basis. Those foods include oranges, red bell peppers, kale, and broccoli for starters. It's found in orange juice, which is also a relatively gentle food for digestive discomfort.
The research for vitamin C for colds and as a remedy for respiratory infections splits along two lines. One line of research attempts to understand whether high doses of vitamin C taken on a regular basis can prevent colds. The second line of research tries to answer whether high doses of vitamin C taken during a respiratory infection may decrease the duration of the disease.
The first question—whether daily, high doses of vitamin C can prevent colds—has come up negative. There seems to be no solid, scientific evidence that vitamin C can keep a cold from developing. One possible exception is in the case of those who experience brief episodes of severe physical exercise or frigid environments—they may benefit from regular, high doses of vitamin C for cold prevention.
The second question—whether high doses of vitamin C can reduce the duration of an illness—is inconclusive, but what evidence is available suggests vitamin C may have some benefit.
Different people seem to respond differently to vitamin C for colds. For some, 1,000 mg seems to be helpful. For others, it takes 2,000 mg. Be careful: at these high doses of vitamin C, some people will experience diarrhea and nausea.
Vitamin D supplements have been tested to discover if they can prevent colds and the flu. Three large trials have come to contradictory conclusions.
In the first trial, scientists from the University of Otago in New Zealand followed 322 otherwise healthy adults for a year and a half. The study found that people who took vitamin D supplements got sick about as often as people who didn't. A second trial of more than 2,000 adults ages 45-75 also found no significant results from taking vitamin D supplements for colds.
However, a third trial performed by scientists from McMaster University found more promising results for those taking supplements. In this study, 600 students were tested. Some were given vitamin D, while others weren't. The students given the extra vitamin D were significantly less likely to contract an upper respiratory tract infection.
You'll need to work a little harder to find natural food sources for your "daily D," though some foods are fortified with this nutrient, making it easier to get it into your diet:
- some orange juices
- fatty fish like mackerel, tuna, swordfish, and salmon (caution; large gamefish like swordfish and large tuna may contain high levels of mercury)
Does Chicken Soup Work?
For many, chicken soup is a comforting way to wait out an illness. But research points to several potential health benefits beyond mere comfort. When it comes hot and steamy, that steam could help open up the nasal passages and ease congestion. Sipping the nutritious broth can keep your energy up and stave off dehydration. On top of all that, lab results suggest chicken soup may ease inflammation. Its anti-inflammatory properties haven’t been proven in human subjects, though.
Does Hot Tea Work?
When you feel sick, have you ever tried putting on a kettle of tea? The benefits of tea are quite similar to those of chicken soup; in both cases the steam can unclog congested nasal passages. Swallowing the hot fluid can soothe a sore throat, which can also relieve a nagging cough, as well as keep you hydrated. And it's possible that the antioxidants in black and green teas can assist in fighting disease.
Does a Hot Toddy Work?
This classic cocktail has been used for generations to fall asleep fast while sick. And it may work--in moderation. The hot toddy is typically made out of hot tea, lemon, a teaspoon of honey, and a shot of whiskey or bourbon. Along with chicken soup and hot tea, the hot toddy can reduce congestion and soothe a sore throat and cough. It also makes you sleepy, but be careful here—too much alcohol actually harms the quality of your sleep.
Does Garlic Work?
Although considered tasty by many, the effectiveness of garlic as a cold and flu treatment needs more research. According to the NIH, there isn't enough evidence to determine if garlic can help prevent these viral sicknesses or relieve their symptoms. Some may find garlic supplements unpleasant due to their tendency to cause bad breath, body odor, and other side effects. Anyone taking blood thinners should be particularly cautious, though. Garlic can interact with anticoagulant drugs, meaning anyone on these drugs ought to discuss the use of garlic with a doctor first.
Do Humidifiers and Steam Work?
This one's a winner for your health. Steam works its way into clogged nasal passages, easing congestion and relieving dry, irritated sinuses. For a whole-room solution, try using a humidifier. Older humidifiers could cause dangerous burns for anyone who got too close, but more modern models feature cool steam for sinus relief that’s safer.
Do Saline Drops Work?
Saline drops and sprays are effective methods of relieving potentially painful sinus congestion. You can either buy these at the drug store or make them at home. To make your own saline drops, mix eight ounces of warm water with a ¼ teaspoon of salt and a ¼ teaspoon of baking soda. To squirt the mixture into your nostrils, use a bulb syringe while you hold the other nostril closed. To get the most out of this treatment, repeat two to three times before moving on to the other nostril. Be careful to use uncontaminated fresh water (not tap water) to avoid placing infectious agents into your sinuses.
Do Neti Pots Work?
The neti pot is a form of nasal irrigation that uses a small ceramic pot to flush the sinuses with water and salt. To get the best health results from one, try the same saline solution described in the previous section on saline drops. You’ll find that your mucus is thinner and it drains more quickly. This can be good for facial pain, pressure, and congestion caused by chronic sinus issues as well. Read the instructions; do not use tap water as deaths have resulted from tap water contamination with an amoeba, Naegleria fowleri.
Does Menthol Ointment Work?
Menthol is an extract of mint. It is responsible for the cool sensation found in mints, and when it's used as an ointment it can help relieve symptoms that frequently accompany the flu and common cold. For starters, menthol is a good decongestant. It thins the mucus that comes with congestion and also makes coughs more productive by helping break up phlegm. In addition, menthol can be useful at easing sore throats and dry coughs. Infants should not be exposed to menthol or peppermint, and peppermint oil should not be taken orally.
Does Gargling Work?
Not only does gargling work to ease the symptoms of a cold or flu, but it also may be useful in preventing these diseases in the first place.
One of the most unpleasant cold symptoms is a sore throat. Luckily you don't need anything but salt and water to treat a sore throat. Just mix 1 cup of warm water with 1 tsp of salt. Gargle with the mixture, and spit it back out. This combination works simply and quickly, and is recommended for anyone 8 years old or older.
Preventing cold and flu viruses may be even simpler, according to one study. Researchers followed 387 healthy Japanese adults. Some of the test subjects gargled with plain water, others used water and an antiseptic, and a third group did not gargle at all. After 60 days, those who used water alone were significantly less likely to contract an upper respiratory tract infection. Why water alone was more effective is not known, but the study’s authors point out that water is commonly chlorinated in Japan, which may help explain this.
Do Nasal Strips Work?
Sometimes a stuffy nose is what keeps you from getting the sleep you need while your immune system fights a virus. If that's true, you may want to consider nasal strips. Nasal strips are essentially tape placed across the bridge of the nose. The idea is to open the nasal passages to make breathing through a congested nose a little easier. They may not be able to unclog the nose themselves, but nasal strips do make it easier to breath.
Does a Fever Work?
This may seem like an odd one—you may be asking yourself, "How can a symptom of a virus infection also be a treatment?" But in truth, a fever is the body's own natural treatment for cold and flu.
When your body's temperature rises, things get a lot less comfortable for germs. Fevers make it harder for germs to proliferate, which could make it easier for your body to fight off illness sooner.
On the other hand, when it gets too high it makes sense to reduce your fever. Plus, fevers can leave you dehydrated if you're not careful. If your fever soars past 104, make sure to contact your doctor right away—unless it comes down very quickly after treating it. Children should be brought to a doctor if their temperature climbs above 102. Infants who are less than three months old should be taken to a doctor if their temperature rises above 100.4; for infants under 2 months, such fever can be considered an emergency situation according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Does Bed Rest Work?
We often hear that bed rest is best when it comes to illness. But there's no evidence that it makes you recover more quickly from a cold or the flu. While it is sometimes necessary to rest to manage viral illness symptoms like fatigue, bed rest probably doesn’t do much to actually stop the disease.
On the other hand, regular exercise has been shown to reduce the frequency of colds. That's especially true for women after they've experienced menopause. Those who exercise regularly also have less severe colds, and their blood tests show less inflammation and a lower viral load.