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This year, people in the U.S. will come down with about 50 million cases of flu and about a billion colds. Although the misery of cold and flu season might be inevitable, one thing is changing: where we look for relief.

Research indicates that many of us are turning away from the over-the-counter medicines we grew up with and toward natural cold and flu remedies, like vitamin C, zinc, echinacea, and others.

  • Last year, we spent more than $1.5 billion on supplements to boost immunity and help ward off colds and the flu.
  • The market for these supplements appears to be growing more than twice as fast as the market for over-the-counter cold and flu drugs.

Experts aren't surprised. "From a conventional medical standpoint, there's just not much that's effective for cold and flu," says David C. Leopold, MD, director of integrative medical education at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in San Diego. "People are trying to find something else that will work."

The incentive may be particularly strong now, given recent FDA reports about the ineffectiveness -- and even risks -- of over-the-counter cold and flu treatments in children.

But do alternative treatments offer the relief that pharmaceutical companies can't? There's growing evidence to suggest that some might -- at least to a modest degree. WebMD turned to the experts to get the details.

Natural Cold and Flu Remedies: How Good Is the Evidence?

First things first: cold and flu viruses are not the same thing. Although colds are a drag, flu is much worse.

  • The symptoms of flu are more severe; they include fever and body aches along with congestion.
  • Flu can be dangerous, too; flu kills more than 30,000 people a year.

But because there's some overlap in symptoms, treatments are often lumped together.

How well do natural cold and flu remedies work? Paul M. Coates, PhD, director of the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health, says that possible benefits appear to be small. But that's a good thing, in a way.

"If a supplement has a big, positive effect, then we worry about an equally powerful negative effect," Coates tells WebMD. Experts agree that popular natural cold and flu remedies seem to be safe for the average person. That's important when dealing with unproven treatments. As long as there's little risk in trying a supplement, the evidence of a benefit doesn't need to be quite so strong.

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