How to Short-Circuit a Cold -- Maybe

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

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 24, 2005
5 min read

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 their 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."

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.

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."

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.

One study of 120 people with cold-like symptoms took 20 drops of echinacea every two hours for 10 days and reported a shortening of cold duration.

Although some practitioners do not use echinacea for colds, Stengler does. "Oh, absolutely," he says. "I combine it with goldenseal, astralagus (a Chinese herb targeting the respiratory system), and lomatium (an herb championed by Native Americans in Nevada)."

The problem with these studies (and with many herb studies), Stengler says, is the differences in strengths and preparations used.

Echinacea can cause rashes in some people, particularly children, so be advised. People with automimmune diseases also should not take it. Usually echinacea is only used for a short time, not every day.

"To me the most promising [cold medicine] is zinc," Larson says. "There seems to be a good biological basis for how it fights infection."

Zinc seems to play an important role in immunity.

"The thing to remember about zinc," says Stengler, who doesn't prescribe it much, "is that only certain forms are effective. These are zinc gluconate and zinc acetate. This comes in lozenge form."

Zinc lozenges can cause nausea and mouth irritation. Prolonged use (greater than six to eight weeks) has been associated with copper deficiency.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, homeopathic treatment involves giving extremely small doses of substances that produce characteristic symptoms of illness in healthy people when given in larger doses. This approach is called "like cures like."

"Homeopathy does not work for infections, though," points out Larson.

It seems everyone has a cold remedy. These might be worth a try (and will at least get your mind off feeling lousy):

  • Garlic. Stengler saw a study that shows garlic pills can ward off colds as well as vampires.
  • Multivitamins for seniors. According to Stengler, a study showed that older people who take one a day have fewer colds.
  • Chicken soup. A study showed that chicken soup had a mild anti-inflammatory effect. "I think the thing about chicken soup is the feeling that someone is doing something for you," Larson says. Also, you need proper nourishment when sick to help your body fight off the bad guys.
  • Honey and lemon. Tea with honey and lemon is a cold staple (rum or bourbon optional). Lemon is a mild astringent, and acid and honey has an antibacterial effect.
  • Nasal washes. There are saline solutions out there now that you sniff up your nose and spit out to wash out bugs. Both doctors say this is reasonable.
  • Hand washing. Larson says this will probably do more good that washing your sinuses.

The studies are mixed; the juries are not in. Does this mean there is nothing the doctor would do, personally if, let's say, they were to be married in three days and had started sneezing?

  • Larson says he would take Tylenol and pseudoephedrine (Sudafed), 60 milligrams (not for those with high blood pressure). He also would take an antihistamine. "And I would drink lots and lots of liquids. There is evidence this dilutes mucus and makes it easier to get out."
  • Stengler says he would take echinacea and lomatium and rinse his sinuses. He says he would also cut back on sugar because it could affect your immunity.