Honing in on Cold Remedies

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

If you've got a cold, what should you take?

By Lynda Liu
WebMD Feature

If you've got a cold, what should you take? Purveyors of alternative medicine offer a dazzling array of choices -- but only a few have science behind them. In this, the first of a three-part series on cold remedies, we'll look at herbs.

What is it about the common cold that makes it so tough to beat? For all its success against other illnesses, the pharmaceutical industry hasn't yet found a cold drug that does more than suppress symptoms. Most come with side effects. But because colds have bugged people as long as there have been people, there's no shortage of old-time remedies from which to choose. Here's what science has found out so far about some favorites.

Steam Treatments

There's no definitive answer as to whether steam can wilt the cold virus. A 1989 British Medical Journal study had 87 people with colds breathe room air for 20 minutes. Those who breathed air that had been humidified and heated to 109.4 degrees had only half as many cold symptoms in the following days as those who breathed air heated to 86 degrees.

But a 1994 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found, among 68 volunteers with colds, no differences in symptoms between those who received a 60-minute treatment of steam heated to 109.4 degrees and those who inhaled steam at 68 degrees.

If you want to treat your cold with steam, you can boil water, place your head over the pot, and drape a towel over your head, creating a tent that traps the steam and brings it to your face and nasal passages. You can also use a facial steamer for these purposes. Steam yourself for about 15 minutes at a time up to once an hour, recommends Patrick Barron, an Orlando naturopath.

Chicken Soup

It's more than an old wives' tale. A 1978 study published in the journal Chest found that drinking hot chicken soup increased the nasal mucous velocity in 15 healthy subjects from an average of 6.9 to 9.2 millimeters per minute. And speeding up the flow of mucus, researchers theorized, could move more viruses out of nasal passageways.

Drinking hot water alone increased velocity from 6.2 to 8.4 millimeters per minute, while cold water slowed the velocity from 7.3 to 4.5. Although researchers didn't know why chicken soup was better than plain hot water, they believe both worked at least in part because of the inhalation of water vapor.

Nasal Irrigation

The thought of pouring salt water down your nostrils may not be appealing, but a Pennsylvania State University study presented at the 1998 American Academy of Family Physicians Annual Scientific Assembly in San Francisco reported that it could help keep you cold-free.

Researchers divided 294 college students into three groups who either took an inactive pill, gargled with salt water, or irrigated their nasal canals with salt water every day. Students who used the daily saline rinse (one cup of water for every teaspoon of salt) had significantly fewer colds in the 10-week period than those in the other groups.

You can also use nasal irrigation once you have a cold, says Barron. Buy a neti pot, which looks like a teapot with a long narrow spout and is made for this purpose, or use any plastic squeeze bottle with a tip that could fit into your nostril. After filling the container with saline solution, put the spout or tip into one nostril while holding down the other nostril with your hand. Tip your head back and slowly pour in the solution. You'll probably have to stop and spit it out as it runs into your throat.


Homeopathy fights disease using highly diluted extracts of plants, animals, and minerals as well as other chemicals. No one knows why that approach should work, and that's one reason homeopathy remains controversial. But some small studies suggest that homeopathy works at least as well as aspirin against the symptoms of the common cold.

One German study published in the April 1988 Arzneimittel-Forschung involved 170 army soldiers with colds. Half were given aspirin and the other half a homeopathic preparation. Researchers found that patients using homeopathy experienced the same number of symptoms and missed the same number of workdays as those taking aspirin. If you want to try homeopathy for your cold, look for a product labeled for treating multiple cold symptoms.

The bottom line? There's still no cure for the common cold. But if you want to try fighting the bug without risking side effects, all these remedies are worth considering

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