While there’s no cure or vaccine for the common cold, many products claim to stop a cold in its tracks.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, adults have an average of two to three colds per year. Kids, especially those under six, have even more. While for most of us, a cold is just an inconvenience (it’s much more serious for those suffering from asthma or COPD), it does its shaky, sneezy, stuffed-up best to put life on hold.
While there’s nothing on the market today that can stop a cold in its tracks, a sizable industry has grown up around attempting to prevent or shorten colds. While there are plenty over-the-counter medications to treat symptoms, anything that claims to actually prevent or shorten a cold is a homeopathic remedy — by definition, a remedy without clinical evidence. An M.D. might chalk the benefits of tea and tincture up to placebo effect, although sometimes that’s all you need. The jury is still out on most treatments, and many homeopathic cold remedies aren’t harmful even if they aren’t exceptionally useful.
With so many cold-shortening treatments crowding shelves and buzzing through blogs, it’s worth taking look at science’s current stance on what doesn’t work, what does, and what might. Is the old platitude that chicken soup is the best cure for the cold right after all?
What doesn’t work
A popular cold remedy when it first hit shelves in the early 1990s, Airborne’s success was bolstered by its “created by a schoolteacher!” slogan and an appearance by that teacher on the Oprah show. Later inquiry into the product showed that the lone study conducted on its efficacy employed no scientists nor medical professionals, and that its cold-fighting claims were ungrounded. A class action lawsuit required Airborne to run ads offering refunds.
Today, Airborne markets itself more generically as a immune-boosting vitamin supplement. Even as such, Airborne is an iffy choice: A single dose contains maximum daily levels of both vitamins A and C, yet the instructions advise taking as many as three doses per day.
The common cold version of the flu cult classic, Oscillococcinum. Both are made by Boiron, a French company that is the largest manufacturer of homeopathic products in the world. The ingredient list reads like a witch’s brew: red onion, honey bee, belladonna, boneset, jessamine, potassium dichromate, strychnine, pokeweed, and pasque flower. All of the above have insufficient evidence of efficacy for the treatment of colds in scientific journals, and several are considered dangerous to ingest in larger doses— both belladonna and strychnine are evil-villain-level poisons. As is the case with all homeopathic medicines, these ingredients are present in extremely diluted form, rendering them safe but also pretty useless. In fact, a handful of consumer lawsuits have been levied against Boiron making just that claim.
Overuse of antibiotics can have negative effects on both a personal scale (needlessly wiping out a healthy gut biome and making it harder for your body to fight future bacterial infections) and a societal scale (an increase in antibiotic-resistant infections). As a result, medical professionals are very deliberate about prescribing antibiotics, and it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be given any for a common cold.
Why? Colds are caused by respiratory viruses, so antibiotics aren’t going to help you. As the name implies, antibiotics are designed to fight infections caused by bacteria. If your cold escalates to a sinus or ear infection, these issues may be treated with antibiotics, but only if the culprit is, in fact, bacteria.
Ever notice you seem to get sick on the tail-end of a tough semester, a long trip, or a hard month at work? While psychological stress doesn’t cause colds, a stressed person is more susceptible when exposed to a cold virus. Chronic stress leads to a weakened immune response and the result is called the “let-down effect.” (There have been several interesting studies on the phenomenon.)
The best way to get through a cold is by giving your body the rest you’ve been postponing. Sleep eight to 10 hours a night and take a hiatus from strenuous exercise. Light walking is plenty.
Drink water, drink broth, drink tea. (Add honey and lemon for a soothing vitamin boost.) Hydration helps your body cycle through the virus while also relieving congestion. And if you’re taking any medication, water also helps speed their absorption and diffusion into the bloodstream.
The benefits of liquid during a cold don’t stop there. You also want water in the air you breathe. The rationale is twofold: Dry, cracking nostrils are more prone to viruses and breathing dry air is rough on a sore throat. A humidifier is the most effective answer here, but you can also leave a shallow dish of water near a heat source, allowing it to humidify the room as the water evaporates.
If you have a sore throat, try gargling with salt water. Rinsing the nose and sinuses with a neti pot can also help flush out infected mucus and provide breathing relief. Note: It’s extremely dangerous to use tap water in neti pots. Read up on proper usage first.
Targeting specific symptoms
Rather than opting for a multi-symptom solution, get granular with your relief. For example, if your biggest problem is a runny nose, go after a decongestant rather than a catch-all cold relief product that also offers relief from fever and coughing.
Multi-symptom medications are typically just regular-strength Tylenol (acetaminophen) plus cough suppressant or nasal decongestant. As a result, you’re getting a smaller dose of the medication you’re actually after. There’s no benefit of taking unnecessary active ingredients, since all medicine carries inherent risks, and in this case might actually draw out your recovery by dehydrating you.
Seriously. The most oft-cited study praising the positive effects of chicken soup came from University of Nebraska Medical Center researchers who showed that the ingredients of chicken soup have anti-inflammatory effects on upper respiratory tract infections. The researchers’ own recipe: Grandma’s chicken soup.
What might work
One of the most important minerals for immune health, zinc has shown some promise as a preventative measure for the common cold — regular daily doses of zinc can help reduce the number of colds contracted per year. It’s also a remedy of sorts, shown to shorten the duration of a cold if administered within the first 24 hours.
That said, the amount of time shaved off is pretty negligible — one day. And considering the mild nature of most colds, the potential negative side effects of taking zinc, including bad taste and nausea, should be weighed alongside the benefits. Taking more than 40 milligrams of zinc per day can lead to serious stomach problems.
The two most popular zinc formulas advertised for treating the cold are Zicam and Cold-eeze. Of the two, we’d recommend Cold-eeze or a classic zinc tablet.
The homeopathic remedy Zicam contains a proprietary zinc formula of zincum aceticum and zincum gluconicum. Claiming a proprietary blend means the company doesn’t share the amounts of its active ingredients, and when it comes to overdose-able supplements like zinc, you need to to be able to keep tabs on intake. That’s why we usually cut products with proprietary blends out of our testing lists. The worst offenders of Zicam’s products are its nasal gels and swabs. They’ve been linked to long-lasting or even permanent loss of the sense of smell.
This zinc lozenge relies on 13.3 milligrams of zinc gluconate per dose to treat the cold. The benefit of getting your cold-fighting zinc from Cold-eeze versus a regular zinc supplement boils down to taste — it’s available in cherry. Just be more conservative with administering the lozenges than the back of the box advises. Cold-eeze says adults can take up to six lozenges per day, but that exceeds the doctor-recommended upper limit for zinc (40 milligram, or about three lozenges) without even taking into consideration the amount of zinc you’re ingesting from food sources like seafood and meat.
Vitamin C is known to enhance healthy immune system, but, like zinc, has not been scientifically proven to prevent or reduce the duration of colds. Again like zinc, vitamin C’s greatest benefit comes from regularly taking it before the onset of a cold. With a reserve of vitamin C in your system, the duration of cold symptoms may be reduced. If you or your child is at a high risk of contracting the cold due to exposure (school, daycare, cold weather), it may be a beneficial supplement. Taking extra therapeutic doses at the onset of a cold has shown a slight benefit in reducing the duration of a cold and alleviating its symptoms.
The roots of the African geranium were first used as a tuberculosis treatment. Today, it is considered likely effective in reducing the symptoms of bronchitis if taken early. In the treatment of the common cold, it’s also possibly effective, but it’s difficult to give an affirmative answer since the bulk of the studies were conducted by the producer of Umcka — Nature’s Way. That said, taking 30 drops (1.5 mL) of umckaloabo three times a day has been shown to quicken the disappearance of cold symptoms. Umcka is available from Nature’s Way as a syrup, dissolvable crystals, and chewables, or as a liquid extract from other herbal remedy manufacturers.
Probiotic are live, beneficial bacteria that improve and maintain healthy gut flora. They do so by producing an enzyme that breaks down chemicals the gut has difficulty processing, lessening gastrointestinal distress and improving the absorption of nutrients. In the process, probiotics help the immune system to function properly.
Because of the symbiotic relationship between a healthy gut and a strong immune system, probiotics are most effective as a preventative measure for the common cold rather than a treatment once you’re sick.
Probiotic supplements come in different formulas, with different combinations of organisms in varying quantities. While you need to continuously take probiotics to reap the benefits, that doesn’t mean sticking with the same formula. In fact, introducing a wide variety of strains into your system is the best option, since each offers different health benefits.
A favorite herb in traditional Chinese medicine, ginseng has become an especially popular cold treatment in Canada. Many homeopathic cold remedies include ginseng, but the efficacy of ginseng in the prevention and treatment of colds is questionable. Like any dietary supplement, the health benefits of ginseng hinge on taking it for long periods of time. If you’re willing to incorporate ginseng as a preventative measure, trials have shown it to reduce the number of colds per year by one and shorten the duration.
With its antimicrobial and antiviral properties, garlic is a popular supplement for many ailments including the common cold. Regular intake of garlic has been shown to decrease occurances of the cold and shorten its duration, but quality issues in the studies prevent these findings from being conclusive. Negative effects include odor and rash.
Study results on whether echinacea prevents or shortens colds are mixed, with some finding no effect when compared with a placebo. Others show some reduction in the severity and duration of cold symptoms when taken in the early stages of a cold. Echinacea seems to be most effective if you take it when you notice cold symptoms and continue it for seven to 10 days.
Be aware that echinacea comes in widely varying types and qualities, which have contributed to differing study results and will likely also impact your experience.
Cold treatment products FAQ
Is there any difference between name-brand and generic cold medicine?
Most over-the-counter cold meds contain similar combinations of a handful of drugs. The biggest differentiator? Price.
When we tapped doctors and pharmacists in our review of cold medicine, they confirmed that the difference between the vast majority of cold remedy brands boils down to price and packaging. Name recognition jacks up cost, but not the quality or amount of ingredients. The FDA sets strict rules for over-the-counter medication, mandating certain ingredients in certain quantities across manufacturers.
For the treatment of certain symptoms, like a cough, there’s only one active ingredient out there considered effective enough to sell. Other symptoms have more diversity in treatment options, so it’s worth reading the back of the box, but if you’re comparing a store-brand cough medicine to a household-name cough medicine, you can rest assured both offer the same effects.
Are there any problems mixing cold medicine with prescription drugs?
The golden rule when ingesting anything medicinal: Ask a pharmacist or physician. Even apparently innocent OTC medications like ibuprofen can interact poorly with prescription drugs. Perhaps you’re unknowingly doubling up on a certain active ingredient, risking overdose, or there’s an adverse interaction between two different ones.
Is it safe to give cold medicine to kids?
Stick to fever reducers and pain relievers for children under six. While there are plenty of children’s cold medicines on the market, many medical professionals recommend steering clear. In studies, the cold cleared up just as quickly on a placebo as on the real thing, and there’s a much higher risk of overdose in children than adults, particularly in kids under two.
Are there any new cures for the common cold?
There might be one on the horizon. New research by British scientists suggests that a compound taken early on in infection could cure the cold at last. It works by attacking not the many viruses that cause the cold but a human enzyme that all of the viruses need to survive. This breakthrough discovery, though far from being developed as a drug, bypasses the issue that has plagued cold treatment up till now: Namely, the fact there are more than 150 strains of rhinoviruses (the most common cold-causing virus) that infect humans and each can quickly evolve if specifically targeted with drugs.
When should you go to the doctor?
Wait 10 days: If you have no reason to believe that a cold could be especially dangerous for you, give it 10 days. If symptoms persist for more than that, it’s time to visit the doctor.
Don’t wait: If your symptoms are unusually severe (fever, chills, muscle aches) or off-textbook (chest pain, shortness of breath).
Don’t wait: If you are at high risk for complications to the cold—for instance, if you suffer respiratory issues like asthma or chronic bronchitis—or if you are at high risk for serious flu complications—for instance, if you’re over 65, have diabetes or heart disease, or are pregnant.
Don’t wait: If your child is sick and has a fever of 100.4°F or higher, particularly if they’re younger than five years old.