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Natural Cold Remedies: What to Know

By Marianne Wait
WebMD Feature

Finding a cure for the common cold has proved harder than paddling across the Pacific in a rowboat. Experts say that's because colds can be caused by more than 200 different viruses. 

There may be no sure way to stop one in its tracks, but some things may work better than others to make you feel better.

Expert Picks

1. Zinc gluconate lozenges. Nothing is sure to help shorten a cold, including zinc. But so far the evidence in favor of zinc is slightly stronger than that behind other popular remedies.

Zinc lozenges or syrup can cut the time a common cold lasts in healthy people, if they take it within 24 hours of feeling sick, says a recent report from the Cochrane Collaboration, a nonprofit group that publishes reviews of health research.

Experts say you should take zinc for no longer than 5 days. Taking too much may upset your stomach and cause a bad taste in your mouth.

2. Nasal irrigation. Some studies suggest that using a form of nasal irrigation like the neti pot may help cold symptoms. 

“The most complete way to flush the nose of bacteria-filled mucus, pollen, and dust is with saline solution and a neti pot,” says Tieraona Low Dog, MD. She's an expert in natural and botanical medicine. “You can use it several times per week during cold and flu season to keep nasal passages moist.”  

Use distilled or sterile water. And don’t do it too often. It can rinse out too much “good” mucus, which protects against colds. Properly clean and thoroughly air-dry the neti pot after each use.

3. Pelargonium sidoides. You might not have heard of it, but Low Dog recommends this supplement, made from the South African geranium. One study found that it eased symptoms and shortened the length of colds. It's in some over-the-counter products.

4. Hot ginger and lemon tea.  “It soothes the throat and just makes you feel better,” says Low Dog.

Other Popular Remedies: What to Know

Echinacea: It can help if taken at the first sign of a cold, says Low Dog, but don’t expect miracles.

Bruce Barrett, MD, PhD, a professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, led clinical trials on the herb. He calls the overall results of more than 20 studies “inconclusive.” If echinacea helps prevent colds, “the degree of benefit is not large,” he says. It might stave off one in six colds, he estimates.

Vitamin C: It’s possible that vitamin C may help shorten symptoms. But don’t take too much. High doses may cause kidney stones. 

Chicken soup: It tastes good and it could help, a little.Hot liquids in general might help clear mucus and help you breathe better, says Barrett. And studies show that chicken soup does a better job of that than other hot liquids, he says.

Greatly lower your odds of getting a cold in the first place: Wash your hands well and often. Other powerful weapons include regular exercise, mindfulness meditation, and having positive relationships, Barrett says.

If you’re unlucky enough to catch a cold, do everyone around you a favor: “Avoid giving it to others by carefully washing your hands, especially every time you touch your face,” Barrett says. And “if you’re coughing or sneezing, wear a mask.”

Reviewed on December 04, 2013

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