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Do Natural Cold Remedies Really Work?

I was recently stranded in an archaic country that does not sell cold or flu medication. Natural alternatives were all I had to save me. Of course I looked up the studies on everything I tried. Maybe they're onto something?



When I asked the pharmacist to point me towards the cold medicine, he had NO IDEA what I was talking about. I could not believe that this 'progressive' Nordic country did not sell cold or flu medicine. No Tylenol flu & sinus, Nyquil, Buckley’s. Nothing of the sort.


He then pointed out how terrible those medicines are for you. And reminded me that everyone in Denmark has paid sick days, so people generally stay home vs. drugging themselves to get though a day of work, whilst infecting coworkers. Touché. But I was too achy and miserable to acknowledge his points.




If you go to the doctor in Denmark, they prescribe rest and lots of fluid including chamomile tea. Personally, I like drinking juice high in vitamin C while I’m sick. Even though in university I learned that there is no evidence that it helps you get over a cold at all. That doesn't stop the placebo effect (or the fluid intake?) from making me feel better.


Anyway, I looked into home remedies for the common cold to see if there was any scientific evidence they work to prevent or treat colds. Plenty of people have a cure they swear by, some more outlandish than others. I didn’t bother looking up the ‘mustard in your socks’ remedy my Ukrainian gymnastics coach gave me, and stuck to the popular stuff.


Vitamin C

It is an antioxidant and definitely plays a role in the immune system. There are TONS of studies looking at its effect on colds, and the results are all over the place. People who take vitamin C regularly have colds that are about 8% shorter than those who don't. Vitamin C has only truly been found effective in intense physical activity and/or subarctic conditions (marathon runners, skiers and Canadian soldiers). Taking high doses of vitamin C once you have a cold does not reduce its duration or severity.

Safety: Safe to take as a supplement in doses up to 4g/d. Anymore than that and you risk the side effect of diarrhea, which is not what you want when your sinuses clear up.

Worth it? Vitamin C pills are cheap and safe, so it doesn't hurt to try. I'd suggest you continue getting it the old fashioned way with foods like peppers, citrus fruits or broccoli.


Lemon

See Vitamin C. One large lemon provides 75% of your daily needs. But there are better ways...




Chamomile Tea

Chamomile has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. It's used in traditional medicine to treat many conditions, some more successfully than others. Sadly there are very few existing studies and no hard proof that it helps treat colds or a sore throat.

Safety: Perfectly safe unless you're allergic to the plant.

Worth it? It doesn’t hurt! You do need lots of fluids and the steam from anything hot will help loosen up mucus.


Honey

Said to help with cough suppression. There are no high quality studies on the subject. Raw vs. pasteurized honey makes no difference.

Safety: Not safe for children under 12 months.

Worth it? Delicious so why not? I personally love this one.



Garlic

Pills are often marketed towards heart health, digestive health, or ‘detox’ rather than colds. Nobody knows the mechanics of how garlic would work as an antiviral agent in the human body, though it has been seen in petri dishes. There is one study that showed participants taking garlic pills caught significantly fewer colds than those on placebo pills. A single study is not considered strong evidence in the science world. Especially since garlic burps gave away who was getting the real pills, making the placebo pills pretty pointless.

Safety: Check for the Drug Identification Number (DIN) OR Natural Product Number (NPN). This shows that the Canadian government has approved the safety of the product.

Worth it? Again, doesn’t hurt. If you enjoy garlic flavoured burps then be my guest!


Zinc

There is some evidence that zinc lozenges help prevent colds and shorten the duration and severity of symptoms. Zinc nose sprays are a thing, but they don’t work. And over 100 people have lost their sense of smell using them.

Safety: Follow the instructions on the package. 40mg/d is the maximum amount considered safe, but taking lozenges as prescribed often exceeds this level. Probably not a problem during a short cold (though once again diarrhea is possible). Longer term it actually weakens your immune system along with a slew of other side effects, so keep it short.

Worth it? They can be a little pricey. If you’re otherwise healthy, can tolerate the taste, and don't overdose, I'd consider taking them at the first sign of a cold. Ask your doctor!



Echinacea

This herb is sold in many forms (dried roots, extract, tablets, tea, etc). The evidence shows that regular use can reduce the onset of colds by 10-20% compared to placebo pills, not overwhelming. Evidence is weak that it will improve your symptoms or shorten your cold by any significant amount of time.

Safety: Allergic reactions to the plant are possible but serious ones are rare. Check for the DIN or NPN#.

Worth it? It is relatively cheap for a natural supplement, as little as $10 for 100 capsules. If you can afford it and/or you’re desperate, go for it.


Booze

Some people use a bit of alcohol before bed to help them fall asleep during a cold. I'm not sure this counts as a 'natural remedy' but it's worth mentioning.

Safety: I'm not going to give you a lecture on the 'dangers of drinking'. When it comes to colds however, the dehydrating effects of alcohol are going to work against you.

Worth it? I wouldn't judge you for putting a shot of something in a hot drink. Anything beyond one standard drink is a bad idea.



Oil of Oregano

Oil of oregano's antimicrobial effect has been consistently observed in laboratories on many bacterial strains. It's main components, carvacrol and thymol, are deemed responsible for this. When I searched for academic studies about carvacrol 1560 results were produced, of which 20 were conducted in animals and zero were conducted in humans.

Safety: Because there are no human clinical trials, medicinal doses of oil of oregano have not been studied for safety. Make sure to follow the dosage on the bottle. It is not safe for children or women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Allergies to oregano are possible. Not to be confused with 'essential' oil of oregano which is not meant to be ingested.

Worth it? It tastes awful but many people swear by this remedy. It's price depends on the strength of the oil. If you take the recommended dose for short term use there is little known risk.


Chicken Noodle Soup

The holy grail! If your mom loved you, this is what she made when you were sick. There have actually been a few scientific studies on chicken soup, one from 1978 titled 'Effects of Chicken Soup on Nasal Mucus Velocity and Nasal Airflow Resistance'. This is the fun stuff I comb through to bring you the facts! Anyway, this very old study found chicken soup does 'loosen up' mucus more than steam from hot water alone. Plus it's one of the most nutrient dense things you can stomach when you're feeling lousy.

Safety: A+

Worth it? Of COURSE! Comfort food at its best.


The most important way to prevent a cold is to keep your immune system strong with proper sleep and nutrition. Wash your hands. If you're sick, stay home! And as any Danish doctor with tell you, the best treatment is lots of rest and hydration.


Stay healthy lovelies!


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