Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on February 18, 2021

Natural Cold and Flu Remedies

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It's no wonder these kinds of treatments are popular -- we still have no cure for colds or the flu. While the flu vaccine may prevent the flu, and some prescription medications may shorten its symptoms, most conventional medications just ease symptoms. Many natural remedies can give you short-term relief as well, and a few may help you get better. See which ones show the most promise.

 

Echinacea

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This herbal supplement may boost your immune system and help fight infections. But it’s unclear whether that helps you fight off colds. Most evidence shows echinacea doesn’t help prevent a cold, but some research found it shortens symptoms by a day or two. Other studies say it has no effect. To try it, take it when you start to feel bad and continue for 7 to 10 days.

Zinc

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Some studies show it may help prevent and fight viruses, like the cold. For treatment, it may help shorten their length and lessen the severity if you take it within 24 hours of the first symptoms. You should continue to take zinc for five days. For cold prevention, some studies have used zinc for up to 4 months. The FDA says not to use zinc nasal products for colds – they carry the risk of permanent loss of smell.  

Vitamin C

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Its cold-fighting powers remain uncertain. Some research suggests it can cut cold symptoms short by about a day, but an analysis of multiple studies showed that only people on daily vitamin C at minimum doses of 200 mg each day who were under extreme physical stress were significantly less likely to get a cold. Taking vitamin C only after the start of symptoms has not been shown to be helpful. 

 

Chicken Soup

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Grandma was onto something. Chicken soup may help cold symptoms in more than one way. Inhaling the steam can ease a stuffy nose. Sipping spoonfuls of it can help replace the fluids you lose. The warm, salty broth can alleviate sore throats. 

Hot Tea

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It offers some of the same perks as chicken soup. Breathing in the steam relieves congestion, while swallowing the fluid soothes your throat and keeps you hydrated. Black and green teas have the added bonus of being loaded with disease-fighting antioxidants, which may help stave off colds, as well.

Hot Toddy

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This adult drink is an age-old nighttime cold remedy. Since you won't want to drink black tea and all that caffeine before bed, make a cup of hot herbal tea. Add a teaspoon of honey, a small shot of whiskey or bourbon, and a squeeze of lemon. This mixture may ease congestion, soothe your throat, alleviate your cough, and help you sleep. Don’t drink alcohol if you take any medications without clearing it with your doctor first.  And limit yourself to one -- too much alcohol can interfere with your sleep.

Garlic

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It's long been known as a germ fighter. And one study showed garlic supplements may help prevent colds when taken daily. But more research needs to be done to figure out its real effects. It does have nutrients, and in food form it can also help spice up your meals when a stuffy nose makes everything taste bland.

Steam/Humidifier

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Breathing in steam can break up congestion in your nose, offering relief when it’s stuffy or runny. You can get a heavy dose from a room humidifier, fill a bowl with hot water and lean over it with a towel over your head, or simply sit in the bathroom with the door shut and a hot shower running.

Saline Irrigation

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Dripping or spraying saltwater into your nose can thin out the gunk and help you get rid of it. That makes you less stuffy. You can try over-the-counter nasal saline washes, or make your own. If you make your own, use water that's contaminant-free. It could be distilled, sterile, or previously boiled and cooled.  Mix 3 teaspoons of iodide-free salt with 1 teaspoon of baking soda and store in a zip lock bag or other small airtight container. Add 1 teaspoon of this mixture to 8 ounces (1 cup) of lukewarm distilled or boiled water.  Use a bulb syringe to squirt the liquid into one nostril while you hold the other one closed. Repeat 2-3 times and then do the other side. After you're done, be sure to rinse the irrigation device after each use with contaminant-free water, and let it air-dry.

Neti Pot

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You can use the same DIY saline solution in this gadget. It lets you flush out your nasal passages with a saltwater solution. The result is thinner mucus that drains more easily. Research suggests Neti pots can ease symptoms like congestion, pressure, and facial pain, particularly in people with ongoing (chronic) sinus troubles. The Neti solution also comes in a bottle with a nozzle that goes in your nose and generates a gentle force to flush your sinuses.

Menthol Ointment

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Days of stuffy nose and congestion can leave you feeling miserable.  A simple remedy may be to dab a menthol-infused ointment under (but not in) your nose, or on your chest or throat. The menthol vapors may help relieve a cough and open clogged passages, which may help with congestion. But don’t use it on raw skin and don’t give it to children under age 2.

Saltwater Gargle

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This may help your sore throat by decreasing throat swelling and rinsing out irritants and germs. Gargle 8 ounces of warm water with about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt four times daily to keep a scratchy throat moist.

Nasal Strips

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You wear these strips of tape on the bridge of your nose to open the nasal passages. While they can't get rid of the stuffiness, they do create more space for airflow. That can help relieve nighttime congestion.

Let Your Fever Work

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It's the original natural remedy. The rise in temperature fights colds and the flu by making your body too hot for germs to live. But if it makes you uncomfortable, it’s fine to take something to treat it. Drink plenty of liquids, too. Call your doctor right away if your temp is over 104 F or one accompanied by worrisome symptoms. For an infant who’s 3 months or younger, call your doctor for any fever of 100.4 or higher. Children with a fever of less than 102 usually don’t require treatment unless they're uncomfortable or it persists.

Bed Rest

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Who has time to spend a day or two under the covers? But when you get plenty of rest, your body can direct more energy to fighting off germs. Staying warm is also important, so tuck yourself in and give your immune system a leg up.

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