Do home remedies really work for the common cold? Chicken soup? Honey? Peppermint Tea? Everyone has a cold remedy they swear by. Some may work; some don’t. If your cold remedy requires an eye of newt, Phoebe Halliwell, and a recitation of “double, double, toil, and trouble”— this post isn’t for you.
Now for those interested in commonly used remedies, have you ever wondered if there’s any scientific evidence supporting them? As a doctor, I have. Honestly, I’m dealing with a cold as I’m writing this. My throat is scratchier than a DJ battle with cats. My voice sounds like an acoustic mash-up of Rep. Charlie Rangel, Busta Rhymes, and cookie monster. I know a tincture of time is the best cold remedy, but I need some relief now (even if it is subjective). So let’s break down why home remedies for the common cold are important and evidence supporting of few of them.
Home remedies for colds are important because treating colds is expensive and too many people take antibiotics for colds.
1. We spend a lot of money on colds.
According to the CDC, the average American has 2-3 colds per year. Hence, there are numerous people looking for cold relief every year—that’s not cheap. In fact, we spend around 3.6 billion dollars on over the counter cold treatments and a startling 40 billion dollars on doctor visits for colds. Some of this money goes to over the counter cough syrups that have questionable effectiveness. Further, doctor visits for colds may lead to unforeseen costs if they end with a prescription for antibiotics.
2. Using Antibiotics for the common cold is inappropriate and possibly dangerous.
Since viruses cause colds, antibiotics are ineffective treatments. For decades, docs were giving out antibiotics for colds like bank tellers used to give out lollipops. In the not too distant past, if you had a runny nose, you got antibiotics. In some cases, you didn’t even need a runny nose. If your nose a slow jog or steady skip, some doc would have given you 7 days of antibiotics. Seems crazy, right?
I can’t entirely place all of the blame on physicians—there are definitely people who demand antibiotics. Years ago when I was a resident, I felt like Sway interviewing Kanye when I refused to give someone antibiotics for a cough and runny nose.
Overprescribing antibiotics for colds has led to the rise of antibiotic resistance and C. difficile colitis (a nasty infection of the colon). To use the modern day vernacular, both of these unfortunate consequences are scary AF. Trust me. You can’t walk two feet in hospital nowadays without having to put on yellow gowns due to someone having a drug-resistant bug. Regarding C. difficile, I’ve seen people lose their colons and end up with ostomy bags after inappropriate treatments with antibiotics.
That said, home remedies maybe reasonable alternatives if they are helpful and don’t cause harm.
Do any home remedies have evidence supporting their use?
I recently asked my Facebook friends about their home remedies for the common cold. My FB family bombarded me with responses ranging from Alcolado to Zinc. I did a Pubmed search for the most common remedies. Here’s what I came up with.
Vitamin C is a well-known anti-oxidant. Nobel prize winner, Linus Pauling, popularized its use for disease prevention in the 1970s. Studies show that regular doses of 1-2 g daily may decrease the duration of colds by 1-2 days.
However, there’s limited evidence for using it to treat colds. One study using 8 g of Vitamin C daily showed a decrease in the duration and severity of colds, but these results weren’t reproduced in other studies (1).
Bottom line: Regularly taking vitamin C before you develop a cold may decrease the cold’s duration. It’s unclear if vitamin C is helpful for treating a cold once you have it. During cold season, try eating foods rich in vitamin C such as kiwi and oranges. If you have a cold, I’m not sure if one packet of vitamin C powder is going to do much. Be careful, too much vitamin C can give you diarrhea (look up the active ingredients in Moviprep).
Honey tastes great and may have some medicinal properties. Several studies suggest that honey helps with coughs (2).
Bottom line: It tastes better than pretty much all cough syrups, and it may be more effective at reducing coughing than many cough syrups. It’s safe to use except for in kids under the age of 1 year—the young ones are at risk for botulism. People with diabetes should also be careful, honey is still a sweetener.
Garlic has anti-microbial and anti-viral properties. Despite these features, a review of 8 clinical trials did not find enough evidence to recommend garlic for treating colds. One study showed that garlic decreases the frequency of colds, but the authors point out that the study was not large enough to make any definitive recommendations (3).
Bottom line: Garlic may prevent vampire attacks, but there’s not enough evidence to recommend its use in treating colds. Regarding the use of garlic as cold prevention, the smell alone may outweigh the benefits.
Sambucus ebulus L is an ancient medicinal herb. Elderberry is another name for it —Pliny the ‘Elder’ first described its therapeutic use. A few studies demonstrate that elderberries have anti-inflammatory properties. Elderberries may even have anti-microbial and anti-viral activities. Regarding the common cold, one study shows that elderberries may decrease the duration of a cold by a couple of days in air-travelers (4, 5).
Bottom line: Elderberry extracts, such as Sambucol, may have a role in treating colds due to their anti-viral and anti-inflammatory activity. More studies are needed to fully evaluate its role in managing colds.
Chamomile is a common medicinal plant. Many people drink chamomile tea to help with cold symptoms. One study shows that it may decrease inflammation by using a mechanism similar to Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (COX-2 inhibition). To date, no one has extensively studied the effect of chamomile on colds (6).
Bottom line: Although not well studied, chamomile tea is safe and may have an anti-inflammatory effect. I’m sipping some right now.
Since 1984, researchers have been performing clinical trials evaluating the role of zinc in managing the common cold. A review of five clinical trials demonstrated that zinc lozenges administered “within 24 of onset of symptoms reduces the duration of common cold symptoms in healthy people.” There was no evidence that zinc decreases the severity of cold symptoms. Similarly, the review did not find evidence for using zinc to prevent colds.
Bottom line: Zinc tastes terrible, but it may decrease the duration of a cold if taken immediately once cold symptoms begin (7).
Menthol is a chemical derived from peppermint. It provides a cooling sensation by triggering cold-sensitive receptors in the skin. Due to its cooling properties, menthol is a common ingredient in cough drops and topical rubs. Lunsford Richardson developed the first commercial topical menthol-based rub in 1890. His commercial preparation eventually became Vick’s Vapor Rub.
Several studies indicate that menthol actually may decrease coughing, but the evidence is sparse. There aren’t any clinical trials to date that examine the anti-cough activity of menthol. If there is an anti-cough effect, it’s likely due to smelling the minty aroma instead of breathing it.
Bottom line: Smelling a minty aroma may decrease coughing, especially at night. Steamy mint teas, alcolado, menthol cough drops, and menthol based rubs may have some benefit, but more studies are needed (8).
People have used chicken broths for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Randomized controlled trials evaluating chicken soup as a treatment for the common cold have never been done. In fact, they are probably impossible to do since there is no standard, universal recipe for chicken noodle soup. Who’s going to decide which Grandma has best recipe?
Nonetheless, there are a few studies that have looked at aspects of chicken noodle soup as a treatment for colds. One study from the 70s found that eating chicken soup loosened nasal mucus better than drinking hot or cold water. Another study demonstrated that chicken soup has anti-inflammatory properties due to inhibiting the movement of neutrophils, one of our bodies’ inflammatory cells (9, 10).
Bottom line: Chicken soup is delicious. If having a cold is your excuse eat some, do it. It may help out with a runny nose, or it’s just a good reason to keep matzah or egg noodles ‘on tap.’ Whatever you do, please try making your own soup; leave the canned stuff to Andy Warhol.
Native Americans originally used Echinacea angustifolia roots to treat a variety of infections. Over time, Echinacea has become a popular treatment for the common cold.
Bottom line: Admittedly it is difficult to study Echinacea because most products with Echinacea differ significantly due to using different plant strains and extraction methods. However, the current evidence still doesn’t support using it to treat the common cold. It may slightly help with preventing colds, but that’s kind of ‘iffy’ too.
If you feel like it works for you, great! If not, you should spend your money elsewhere.
Take home points:
- Antibiotics have no role in the treating colds
- Home remedies may help, but further studies are needed.
- Most studies have evaluated the roles of honey, vitamin C, and zinc in colds.
- Most home remedies are safe and inexpensive.
- Almost all of them are tastier than commercial cough syrups (zinc is debatable).
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