From echinacea to chicken soup, learn which popular cold and flu remedies really work — and which are a waste of money.
Cold and flu symptoms can make you miserable. When your nose is clogged, your throat’s raw, and your whole body aches, you want relief — and fast. If you’re looking for an alternative to traditional over-the-counter medicines, you might consider one of several natural remedies that have been touted for cold and flu relief. But natural doesn’t always mean effective — or safe. Some alternative therapies just don’t work, and a few can cause side effects.
Here’s a look at what science has to say about eight of the most popular natural cold and flu remedies.
Astragalus has been a staple in Chinese medicine for thousands of years, but it’s only caught on in the U.S. within the last few decades. One of its folk uses is as a cold remedy, and some evidence suggests it can help with immune function, but the research so far is too limited to draw any real conclusions. Anyone using this herbal supplement should do so with caution. Astragalus can interact with immune-suppressing medicine used to prevent organ rejection, and it could affect blood sugar and blood pressure levels.
Grandma’s old-fashioned recipe got a media boost in 2000, when Stephen Rennard, MD, from the University of Nebraska, published a study that found chicken soup inhibited the movement of neutrophils. These white blood cells are behind the inflammatory response that launches symptoms like a stuffed nose during a respiratory infection. What’s the magic formula to a healing bowl of chicken soup? The study recipe included a mixture of chicken, onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery stems, parsley, salt, and pepper, but other variations also seemed to do the trick.
It’s been hard to gauge echinacea’s effectiveness, in part, because so many different formulations of the herb are available. Yet results of studies conducted so far have been so-so. Echinacea might lower your odds of getting a cold, but only slightly — by 10 to 20 percent, one research review concluded. Once you’re sick, the herb will likely do little, if nothing, to ease your symptoms or help you recover faster. “Bottom line: Echinacea may have small preventive or treatment effects, but the evidence is mixed,” said Bruce Barrett, MD, PhD, one of the review’s authors and a professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Any benefits the herb provides have to be balanced with potential side effects like headache, nausea, and a bad taste.
Garlic adds a pungent kick to pasta sauce, but could it also kick colds and flu? The evidence is slim. One study did find that people who took a garlic supplement caught fewer colds than those who got a placebo, although garlic didn’t help cold sufferers get over their illness any quicker.
When a hacking cough keeps you awake, you might be better off reaching for a jar of buckwheat honey than a bottle of cough medicine. (But don’t give it to a child younger than age 1.) Research in children finds honey can help calm coughs, particularly at night. In one study (funded with a grant from the Honey Board), honey helped kids with a cough sleep even better than the cough suppressant, dextromethorphan.
A simple mixture of salt and water might help with nasal cold and flu symptoms. Although most of the studies on the subject have been small and poorly designed, one larger trial found saline nasal spray relieved congestion and runny nose in children. “It is not clear whether the effect is predominately mechanical, based on clearing mucus, or whether salts and trace elements in seawater solutions play a significant role,” the authors wrote.
Some people reach for a big glass of orange juice at the first sign of a sniffle, but does extra vitamin C really help? Not much, according to research. Studies find vitamin C supplements don’t prevent colds, and only slightly reduce the duration (by 8 percent in adults and 14 percent in children).
Sucking on zinc lozenges might make your cold a little shorter, research finds, but at the cost of unpleasant side effects like nausea and a bad taste in your mouth. “Until further evidence becomes available, there is only a weak rationale for physicians to recommend zinc for the treatment of the common cold,” the authors of one review concluded. “The questionable benefits must be balanced against the potential adverse effects.”
December 28, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN