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How to Short-Circuit a Cold -- Maybe

It seems everyone has a cold remedy, but do some actually work?
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WebMD Feature

The hottest cold remedy on the shelves is Airborne, a tablet-in-water "effervescent" concoction consisting of antioxidants, electrolytes, amino acids, vitamin C, and seven herbs. Legend has it that this was invented by a second-grade teacher who found the perfect formula for warding off the ailments of her germy little charges.

"My patients use it and find it helpful and cost effective," Mark Stengler, ND, a naturopathic medical doctor who practices at the LaJolla Whole Health Clinic in LaJolla, Calif., tells WebMD. "They take it if people around them have a cold or if they are going on a plane. It comes in a children's version, too."

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Mothers are celebrated (if sometimes vilified) for their eagerness to advise their children on matters big and small: how to behave, what to wear, whom to marry, when to have kids ... and, oh yes, how to stay healthy during cold and flu season. Does science back up what Dr. Mom told you about the common cold? Or was she full of hot air? Here's what real doctors have to say about 10 familiar cold-busting tips:

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On the company web site, a study of 96 people aged 18-55 years who had upper respiratory symptoms 24 hours or less is outlined. A cold-symptoms scale was developed to be used during the study.

Forty-eight participants received Airborne six times a day for five days, while 44 participants received a placebo pill. They were asked to evaluate their symptoms after receiving their treatment. In the placebo group, almost 10% saw complete improvements in their symptoms. In the Airborne group, almost half of were classified as "full responders."

"If someone had a cure for the cold, we would all take it," Eric Larson, MD, chair of the board of regents of the American College of Physicians, an internist at Group Health Cooperative and director of the Center for Health Studies, both in Seattle, reminds WebMD. "A lot of the evidence we hear is along the lines of, 'I took this medicine and didn't get a cold and my spouse didn't take it and did get a cold.'"

Still, Larson says "a lot of people swear by Airborne. I just don't see evidence that it works." However, he adds that because people believe it's effective, it may indeed have an effect.

How Effective Is Vitamin C?

Larson says vitamin C is "probably the most studied" remedy. "This is because a popular scientist [Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling] cited the biochemistry and showed why it should work." But, he says, the consensus seems to be that large doses of vitamin C (greater than 1 gram per day) does not prevent infection with the virus responsible for the common cold.

"The studies are mixed," agrees Stengler. He says that in 21 studies, vitamin C reduced the symptoms and duration of a cold, but differences in doses of the vitamin made it difficult to interpret the results of these studies. The reduction in symptoms may have been related to vitamin C's antihistamine effect at large doses.

"I just don't find vitamin C magical," sighs Stengler. "It can help mild to moderately. And it's easy to get and cost-effective."

Does Echinacea Fight Colds?

Echinacea is a distillation from a roadside wildflower called the purple coneflower and is often touted as enhancing immunity. "Again, the studies are mixed," says Stengler. "There are some positive ones." he says.

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