The Truth Behind Natural Cold Remedies

Natural Cold Remedies

If you catch a cold, you can expect to be sick for one to two weeks. Cold remedies are almost as common as the common cold, and many are nearly as ancient. The use of chicken soup as a congestion cure dates back centuries. But is longevity any guarantee that a cold remedy works? Do effective cold remedies even exist? Here’s a look at some common cold remedies and what’s known about them. Always consult your medical provider to determine what is best for you.


Vitamin C

Famous for its historic use to cure scurvy, vitamin C also has a long past in the prevention and treatment of the common cold. Vitamin C works as an antioxidant that helps body tissue grow and heal itself. It is a water-soluble vitamin that humans must get through food or supplements. Common foods that contain high amounts of vitamin C include bell peppers, citrus fruits, kiwifruit, broccoli, strawberries, and tomato juice. Vitamin C is also a common component of multivitamins and over-the-counter cold remedies. It is widely believed to improve general health, speed healing, and fight infection. According to the National Institutes of Health, vitamin C is considered “possibly effective” for treating the common cold, but is ineffective for preventing it. Vitamin C is typically considered safe, even in sizable doses. Side effects of vitamin C use by mouth are rare, but they can include nausea, vomiting, headache, cramps, and heartburn. Doses over 2000mg per day can cause kidney stones and diarrhea. In addition, people with heart conditions, cancer, diabetes, blood disorders, and kidney stones should always consult a physician before taking vitamin C supplements.

Chicken Soup

Science has begun to support what mothers have understood for centuries. The heat, salt, and hydration provided by chicken soup may actually fight the cold virus. Laboratory studies have shown that ingredients of a chicken soup with vegetables could kill viral cells and prevent the growth of new ones. The soup may also provide an anti-inflammatory effect in the upper respiratory tract that helps soothe symptoms. Unfortunately, the benefits of chicken soup appear to be limited by how quickly the soup leaves the body. There is no indication that chicken soup would help in the prevention of colds, but its use as a remedy for symptoms is common. It is largely a safe remedy with no ill side effects, and scientific evidence points more in favor of its cold-fighting properties than against it. A potential side effect is the amount of salt in most commercially prepared soups


Echinacea has long been used in a variety of forms to prevent colds and fight respiratory infections. There are nine species of Echinacea, but the most common variety used for health purposes is Echinacea purpurea. Proponents believe it helps support the immune system. It is also used to treat skin problems, urinary tract infections, yeast infections, migraines, sexually transmitted infections, ADHD, and other conditions. Despite its frequent use as a herbal remedy for colds, scientific study on Echinacea has been lacking and contradictory. The National Institutes of Health reports that current evidence suggests Echinacea is “possibly effective” for modestly reducing cold symptoms, but not for preventing colds. According to the Mayo Clinic, Echinacea can cause allergic reactions in some individuals that can be life-threatening. People with allergies to the ragweed family should avoid Echinacea because of its similar natural properties. Echinacea can also cause stomach discomfort, nausea, muscle aches, dizziness or headaches, sore throat, and rashes. It is not recommended for regular use (no longer than 10 days), and may cause more problems in children than in adults.


Garlic is an edible herb that has long been used to flavor food and treat a variety of common health conditions. Eating garlic and taking supplements has been shown to be effective for high blood pressure, fungal skin infections, tick bite treatment, and prevention of certain cancers. It is also used for many other health conditions, such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and the common cold. It is available as a potent food flavor in fresh, dried, jarred, oil, paste, and powdered forms. It is also sold in supplements. Although some research suggests that garlic is effective in reducing blood pressure and healing fungal skin conditions, the National Institutes of Health report that there is “insufficient evidence” to tell whether garlic effectively treats or prevents the common cold. Although garlic is generally considered safe for regular use in your diet or as a supplement, there are some possible side effects. Many people may get bad breath from oral garlic use. In addition, some people may get heartburn, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, gas, or body odor. People who are undergoing surgery should stop taking garlic two weeks prior to the surgery, as garlic may prolong bleeding


North American ginseng has long been used for its medicinal properties, traditionally used for a wide variety of ailments. In addition to treating cold and flu, this form of ginseng is used in an effort to relieve stress, improve digestion, boost the immune system, enhance memory, battle HIV/AIDS and cancer, manage diabetes, and even prevent signs of aging. The root can be used to make powdered supplements or oils and extracts (which can be added to food or drinks). Ginseng has been studied more than many other natural cold remedies. According to the National Institutes of Health, American ginseng is “possibly effective” for preventing colds and flu viruses. Unfortunately, ginseng can cause serious side effects and drug interactions in some people. Even with short-term use, ginseng may cause blood pressure changes, low blood sugar, diarrhea, itching, sleep problems, headaches, and nervousness. It can also cause vaginal bleeding, rashes, and allergic reactions.

Zinc Supplements, Lozenges, and Sprays

Zinc has been used for decades to calm symptoms, reduce the duration of, and prevent the common cold. The human body uses zinc to support the health of the immune system and the eyes. It is also important for cell health, wound healing, and protein synthesis. Zinc can be found naturally in foods such as oysters, beef, beans, and oatmeal. It is also added to enriched grain products like bread and cereal. Only very small amounts of zinc are needed by the body to function properly. There is little controversy over its side effects. Zinc can cause metallic taste, local irritation, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and other problems. These side effects are more likely to occur with heavy or frequent zinc supplementation than from single lozenges. Overuse can cause coughing, fever, stomach pains, fatigue, and problems with blood iron levels. In large doses, zinc can be fatal.
Zinc also interacts with many medications and natural supplements, and can decrease the body’s ability to use antibiotics.

Nasal Irrigation

Nasal irrigation finds its origins in Ayurvedic medicine. Typically, a saline (saltwater) solution is used to rinse the sinuses. Saline nasal irrigation is commonly used to alleviate or prevent symptoms of congestion and inflammation in people with allergies or frequent sinus infections. Because this process can reduce swelling of mucus membranes and clear the sinuses of build-up, many people also believe it helps prevent colds and treat their symptoms. Saline nasal irrigation kits are sold without a prescription at most drug stores. A warm saline solution is poured from a syringe or a teapot-like container through each side of the nose, draining out the other nostril. Major reviews of existing research have shown that nasal irrigation can be effective at relieving symptoms of sinusitis or rhinitis in patients with persistent problems. It was found to be even more useful when paired with other treatments, like decongestant medication or antibiotics. Side effects of saline nasal rinses include mild discomfort, anxiety about the process, and occasionally dry nasal membranes. When the irrigation process is performed incorrectly, patients may feel as if they got water up the nose (as if from swimming). If the saline packet is not correctly mixed with enough water, a high salt concentration can cause nasal discomfort.

Green Tea

Green tea has been heralded for its ability to enhance alertness, fight blood pressure problems, speed weight loss, and perform many other medical feats. Despite limited research behind many of its health-related claims, green tea has long been used as a beverage and extract. Green tea has not been widely studied with regards to its ability to prevent or treat respiratory infections. Some promising research indicates green tea supplements (in capsule form) may prevent some illness and cold and flu symptoms. The organic compounds in green tea may also have antiviral properties that can help fend off influenza strains. Drinking hot liquids in general during a cold may also temporarily relieve nasal congestion. Overall, drinking green tea to prevent or treat the common cold appears to be a promising habit, but more research is needed. Temporary and long-term use of green tea as a beverage or supplement is likely safe for most adults. Some people may experience minor stomach upset or constipation from green tea use. Green tea contains caffeine, which speeds up the nervous system. Drugs such as amphetamines, cocaine, and ephedrine also act as stimulants to the nervous system. Combining any stimulant drug with green tea or other caffeinated substances can cause too much stimulation and potential heart problems.

Lemon & Honey

Lemon and honey have many natural properties that make them common sense cold fighters. Lemon is acclaimed for its vitamin C and antimicrobial properties, while honey is treasured for its sweet taste, potential to fight seasonal allergies, and its broad range of antimicrobial properties. Both honey and lemon have significant ability to inhibit the growth of microbes that can cause infection. Honey may also contain antiviral properties that could inhibit viral activity from colds. In addition, a growing number of studies have found honey to be an effective cough suppressant and sleep aid during a cold. However, there is insufficient evidence to believe lemon and honey can shorten the prevent or shorten the duration of a cold. Wild honey may contain spores of Clostridium botulinum. When ingested by infants, these spores and their toxins can cause serious health problems and—if left untreated—death. For this reason, children under 12 months of age should not be given honey.

Vitamin D & the Sun

Vitamin D can be found naturally in some seafood, but it is often added to fruit juices and grain products. Most people get the vast majority of their vitamin D from the sun, which helps the body produce its own. It is essential for bone health, and is also used to promote heart, circulatory, skin, lung, oral, muscle, and immune health. Many people do not have adequate levels of vitamin D in their systems, especially during the winter. According to the National Institutes of health, vitamin D is “possibly effective” at preventing respiratory infections. There is currently insufficient evidence to determine whether vitamin D really prevents or treats the common cold. Some research indicate that vitamin D supplementation has antiviral effects, but not enough is known about its antiviral strength to use it to specifically target cold, flu, or other viruses. Most people are not at risk of getting too much vitamin D. In high doses, however, vitamin D supplements can cause fatigue, weakness, nausea and vomiting, headache, metallic taste, and loss of appetite. Vitamin D supplementation can also have a negative interaction with certain medications, and excessive exposure to the sun can cause a number of other problems, such as sunburn, skin damage, heat exhaustion, vomiting, and even skin cancer.

Herbal Over the Counter Cold Remedies

Because of strong medicinal qualities found in many natural cold remedies, many pharmaceutical products use herbal extracts as the active ingredients in their medications. The drugs listed below are considered homeopathic remedies that are not subject to standard clinical trials and pharmaceutical standards. Because of this, these products may have unregulated ingredients or less reliable manufacturing processes than standard pharmaceuticals.

  • Cold-EEZE.  Cold-EEZE brand offers a variety of over-the-counter products claiming to relieve symptoms and shorten the duration of the common cold. The active ingredient in their lozenges and oral spray is zincum gluconicum. Because they are considered homeopathic remedies, the FDA does not evaluate Cold-EEZE products for safety or efficacy. In clinical studies, Cold-EEZE products have been shown to reduce the frequency and duration of colds in users.
  • Airborne.  Airborne, Inc. offers a variety of natural products designed to support the immune system. They contain vitamins A, C, and E as well as zinc, a herbal blend (containing ginger, Echinacea, and other herbs), selenium, magnesium, manganese, and an amino acid blend. Ingredients in the supplement have been shown to support immune system function and resistance to infection to varying degrees. There is no scientific evidence that the Airborne nutritional supplements themselves prevent or treat the common cold. In fact, their former advertising claims about cold prevention and treatment resulted in a lawsuit for false advertising. The supplements are unlikely to cause negative side effects beyond those expected from use of its separate ingredients. However, several of the active ingredients in Airborne supplements may interact with medications.
  • Boiron Oscillococcinum.  Boiron Oscillococcinum pellets are marketed as homeopathic relief for aches, chills, and fevers. The active ingredient is a diluted extract of Muscovy duck heart and liver. There are several promising studies promoting Oscillococcinum’s ability to fight (but not prevent) flu-like symptoms. Despite this evidence, a California class action lawsuit has been filed to protest the apparent false claims of Boiron, Inc. The suit has been filed because tests of the product revealed too little of the active ingredient in the product to be clinically effective. No verdict or settlement has yet been achieved. Further research is still necessary before Oscillococcinum (especially at doses present in the actual product) can be considered effective for the prevention and treatment of flu-like symptoms and infections. Please note that this product is not marketed for the common cold, and has not been tested against the viruses that cause the common cold.


Information provided on this website and in the Doctor’s Blog is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended as and does not substitute for medical advice. Please consult your health care professional for evaluation of your individual case.


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