For those of us in colder climates, many of us have already battled the common cold this season. Though generally not a serious illness for those who’re otherwise healthy, the common cold can be a nuisance.
Keep reading to find out some natural cold remedies that have been evaluated in randomized controlled trials.
What Are the Symptoms of the Common Cold?
Typically symptoms of the common cold include sore throat, cough, sneezing, running nose, headache, fatigue, and a low-grade fever. The symptoms of the common cold tend to last for around a week.
How Do You Get Sick?
Since colds are caused by more than 100 different viruses, antibiotics are ineffective for treating the common cold though physicians sometimes prescribe them to treat secondary bacterial infections (bronchitis, pneumonia).
Tips to Prevent Catching a Cold?
Though there’s no 100% reliable way of preventing colds, you can reduce your risk by washing your hands regularly, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, getting regular exercise, sleep, and limiting your stress levels. In addition to these common measures, there’s also some herbs and vitamins that may also be effective natural cold remedies.
Lifestyle Treatments for the Common Cold:
- Make sure that you drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and to loosen mucus
- Hot beverages – studies suggest that hot beverages can help to temporarily relieve some of the symptoms of colds such as sore throat, cough, and runny nose.
- Get plenty of rest – It’s important to avoid complications and to restore your energy levels.
- Continue to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to maintain a healthy diet.
Natural or Herbal Remedies for the Common Cold
Grade: A (Strong Scientific Evidence)
1. Wash your hands frequently
Washing your hands obviously won’t help cure your cold, but frequent hand washing serves two purposes–If you’re already sick, it prevents you from spreading the cold virus to others and if you’re not then it helps reduce your risk of catching a cold. Of course, if you’re sick you should also stay home to prevent spreading your illness to others.
2. Andrographis paniculata
Unlike Zinc nasal swabs, Andrographis is an herbal remedy that I would recommend. In the past, I formulated a cold and flu product that contained Andrographis in addition to other ingredients. I’ve personally tried Andrographis as well and found it to be effective at reducing nasal congestion and sneezing, in particular.
Andrographis when combined with Siberian Ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) has been shown to reduce cold symptoms in one study. As well, another study found that it reduced symptoms and complications in those with influenza infections.
Grade: B (Fair to Good Scientific Evidence)
1. Vitamin C
Vitamin C has long been regarded as a potential cure for the common cold. Nobel Prize Winner, Linus Pauling, first extolled the benefits of megadose supplementation with vitamin C. However, the current evidence that vitamin C can cure the common cold is lacking.
Despite this, there are some studies that suggest that vitamin C supplementation may be beneficial for reducing the duration of colds (about a day) and also preventing colds  in athletes exposed to extreme environments (such as cross-country skiers).
2. Probiotics (lactobacillus)
Some preliminary studies suggest that probiotics containing lactobacillus strains may be beneficial in preventing people from acquiring the common cold and may also reduce the severity of cold symptoms in children [3,4].
3. N-acetyl cysteine – NAC
N-acetyl cysteine is a potent antioxidant that has been used for several years to treat various lung conditions such as bronchitis due to its expectorant or mucolytic properties.
In one study, the researchers found that daily supplementation with 600 mg n-acetyl cysteine tablets reduced the infection rate of influenza-like symptoms as well as the severity of symptoms in elderly patients.
Echinacea has been a somewhat controversial herb used to prevent and treat symptoms of the common cold. Evidence for the efficacy of Echinacea purpurea (typical dose of 300 mg take 3 times per day) tends to oscillate back and forth between being effective and ineffective. Overall, it appears that there’s some evidence that Echinacea may be effective .
7. Garlic (Allium Sativa)
Garlic’s long been known to have some antimicrobial properties. One study found that regular supplementation with garlic capsules reduced the risk of catching a common cold. Data from this study is limited, of course.
If you’re considering taking garlic supplements, keep in mind a few things. First, they can cause garlic breath which is unpleasant. Secondly, garlic supplements should be avoided in those who take blood-thinners since it can increase your risk of bleeding.
8. Vitamin D
Research suggests that low levels of vitamin D are associated with an increased risk of upper respiratory infections . In fact, declining levels of vitamin D during the winter months is one of the recent hypothesis for the increasing incidence of colds and the flu during winter months .
Recently, vitamin D recommendations have increased to 600 IU/day for most Adults and 800 IU/day for the elderly (follow the link for more details).
9. Elderberry (Sambucus Nigra)
Elderberry has been studied for its potential role in shortening the duration of the flu. As well, it potentially helps with lessening congestion.
Grade c: (Unclear or Conflicting Evidence)
Though zinc is required for your immune system to function properly, the clinical trial data supporting the use of zinc (lozenges or nasal sprays) is unreliable at best. What’s more, is that large doses of zinc (>50 mg/d over a long period) can be dangerous.
Zicam®, a popular cold remedy which contains zinc, has settled lawsuits in the past from people complaining that they lost their sense of smell (anosmia) from the use of various Zicam® nasal swabs and gels (containing zinc).
2. Siberian Ginseng – Eleutherococcus senticosus
Both Siberian and American Ginseng are often referred to as ‘adaptogens’ with putative benefits in adapting to stress. As above, Siberian Ginseng has been studied in combination with Andrographis – one study showed that when taken within 72 hours of the onset of a cold, the combination was effective at significantly improving the symptoms of the common cold.
3. American Ginseng – Panax quinquefolium
There’s some conflicting evidence that doses of 400 mg per day of American Ginseng may reduce both the risk of catching a cold as well as reducing the severity of symptoms.
Though not particularly well studied compared to some of the other herbal options, there was a fairly recent study that found astragulus was beneficial in improving symptoms of rhinorrhea in patients with seasonal allergic rhinitis .
Dose: 80 mg of Astragalus membranaceus (AM) root extract as an active ingredient per capsule – standardized to contain 40% of polysaccharides. 2 capsules two times per day (in the study cited above).
The bottom line is that the evidence for herbal supplements or natural remedies for preventing and treating the common cold and flu are not yet entirely conclusive.
Personally, I get a yearly flu vaccine and I take 2000 IU of vitamin D during the winter months since I live in a cold climate. In addition to lifestyle interventions and other common measures, regular supplementation with Vitamin C (though not megadoses) along with taking Andrographis (if you can find a reliable source).
Summary of Recommended Natural Cold Remedies
- Wash your hands frequently
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Andrographis paniculata
- Mkrtchyan A, Panosyan V, Panossian A, Wikman G, Wagner HPhytomedicine. A phase I clinical study of Andrographis paniculata fixed combination Kan Jang versus ginseng and valerian on the semen quality of healthy male subjects. 2005 Jun;12(6-7):403-9.
- Examining the evidence for the use of vitamin C in the prophylaxis and treatment of the common cold.
- Randomised, double-blind and placebo-controlled study using new probiotic lactobacilli for strengthening the body immune defence against viral infections.
- Probiotic effects on cold and influenza-like symptom incidence and duration in children.
- Association between serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D level and upper respiratory tract infection in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Arch Intern Med. 2009 Feb 23;169(4):384-90.
- Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin d and the incidence of acute viral respiratory tract infections in healthy adults.
- McElhaney JE, Goel V, Toane B, Hooten J, Shan JJ. Efficacy of COLD-fX in the prevention of respiratory symptoms in community-dwelling adults: a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. J Altern Complement Med. 2006 Mar;12(2):153-7.
- Predy GN, Goel V, Lovlin R, Donner A, Stitt L, Basu TK. Efficacy of an extract of North American ginseng containing poly-furanosyl-pyranosyl-saccharides for preventing upper respiratory tract infections: a randomized controlled trial. CMAJ. 2005 Oct 25;173(9):1043-8.
Matkovic Z, Zivkovic V, Korica M, Plavec D, Pecanic S, Tudoric N.
Efficacy and safety of Astragalus membranaceus in the treatment of patients with seasonal allergic rhinitis. Phytother Res. 2010 Feb;24(2):175-81. doi: 10.1002/ptr.2877.