6 Home Remedies for Colds That May Actually Work
Here's what to try—and what to skip—the next time you're sick.
Fall brings college football, sweater weather and pumpkin-spice coffee and snacks, but it also marks the start of cold season. In fact, the CDC estimates that most adults will have two to three colds per year, often occurring between September and April.
Recipe pictured above: Classic Chicken Soup
Symptoms like nasal congestion, sore throat, sneezing, coughing and general fatigue can make you feel pretty bad, yet there's no quick fix for the common head cold. In fact, most colds are viral, so antibiotics aren't effective. You're left to wait for a cold to run its 7- to 10-day course, something that makes many (myself included) consider trying a home remedy to speed up the process.
But do any home remedies actually work? I explored research on what we know about cold remedies you've likely heard from family and friends to find out which may offer some cold relief.
Pictured recipe: Strawberry-Pineapple Smoothie
Vitamin C is an antioxidant that plays a key role in immunity and in helping the body weather stress. So it makes logical sense to think that loading up on vitamin C-rich foods like orange juice or taking vitamin C supplements might help when you feel initial cold symptoms start. But does orange juice have the ability to prevent a cold or to lessen its severity?
What the research says: While there is no conclusive evidence that increasing Vitamin C intake can reduce the number or frequency of colds, one study suggests that consuming Vitamin C may shorten a cold's duration by 1.5 to 2 days. Other research suggests that that taking Vitamin C may be beneficial in reducing the number of colds for those already under stress physical stress.
The bottom line: Routinely getting adequate vitamin C is a good idea, but especially during cold season to support immune functioning. It's easy to meet, and even surpass, the RDA for vitamin C (90mg for men, 75mg for women) by focusing on getting in two to three servings of bright-colored produce like leafy greens, peppers, berries and citrus each day. If you choose to take a supplement, be aware that it's unclear if there are benefit seen beyond 200mg daily. Also, GI side effects are often a result of consuming more than 1000mg on a regular basis.
Garlic gets its potent flavor from allicin, a compound that some research suggests may decrease risk of heart disease and some cancers. Allicin compounds may also protect the body from certain viruses, including the rhinovirus (the primary cause of colds).
What the research says: While there is limited data to really draw conclusions, a study published in 2014 suggests that those who took garlic supplements had 64% fewer colds and shortened cold duration by 70%. The problem with these promising results is that are few other studies to support this. Also, it's not clear if you'd get similar benefits just by increasing garlic in food, since garlic supplements contain approximately 20 times more allicin than what's in a clove of garlic.
The bottom line: Garlic adds flavor, which you often need a little more of when congested, so feel free to add extra garlic in recipes. But don't expect bumping up garlic to run off your cold symptoms any quicker.
Zinc is an essential nutrient that supports a range of bodily functions, one of which is immunity. In fact, a zinc deficiency is associated with increased risk of infection. This is likely why both zinc lozenges and zinc nasal sprays have become popular drugstore product during cold season.
What the research says: No forms of zinc appear to prevent or reduce the number of colds, but zinc lozenges may offer benefit by shortening a cold's duration and severity. However, the results are based on studies using different amounts and forms of zinc, making it difficult to pinpoint dosage recommendations for optimal results. Two other things to note are that benefits seen in zinc were primarily seen from the use of zinc lozenges (not nasal sprays), and benefits were only seen in adults, not children.
The bottom line: Data surrounding the use of zinc lozenges is some of the most promising when it comes to possibly shortening a cold's duration and severity in adults. Be careful not to overdo usage, though; little is known about dosage and optimal forms of zinc to use.
Eating chicken soup is one of the oldest home remedies around. Yet, it seems far-fetched to think that a bowl of soup might offer any more than a little warm comfort when it comes to a head cold. Turns out, there's a reason that moms and grandmothers are still recommending it.
What the research says: Chicken soup may not keep you from getting a cold, but there's data to suggest eating it can alleviate annoying cold symptoms to get you feeling better. One study found that eating chicken soup has a mild anti-inflammatory effect that impacts white blood cells to relieve cold symptoms quicker, as well as to keep them from developing into an upper respiratory infection. A later study suggested this may be due to a compound in chicken that inhibits viral infections.
The bottom line: All hot soups and liquids like tea may help to alleviate congestion as well by thinning mucus, so chicken soup is not your only option. However, some speculate that the ingredients in chicken soup (chicken, onion, garlic, parsley and pepper) may offer a little extra benefit over other hot liquids when it comes to easing symptoms and shortening downtime.
Gargling Salt Water
Gargling with warm salt water is one of the oldest remedies to soothe a sore throat, and it's advice I still get from my mom. But my initial reflex is to hit the drugstore aisle of flavored throat lozenges, decongestants and antihistamines, thinking that these products have got to have an edge over passed-down family remedies.
What the research says: Gargling with salt water doesn't appear to prevent colds, but research does suggest it provides relief and may even shorten the duration and severity of symptoms. Many of the benefits appear to come from the salty solution's ability to attract water, pulling moisture out of mouth and throat tissue and helping to wash away the virus. Gargling with salt water also usually gives some pretty immediate pain relief and may prevent a virus from progressing to a larger respiratory infection. Using iodized salt in your solution may help, too. A study in 2010 found that gargling with an iodine solution reduced the frequency of tonsillitis.
The bottom line: There appears to be little harm to trying this remedy that usually results in at least short-term improvements. While there's no exact recipe, many suggest mixing ½ to 1 teaspoon of salt with warm water.
Many grandparents and older relatives swear by it, but can sipping on a hot toddy have really any effect on the common cold? Ingredients vary slightly, but a hot toddy usually refers to a warm beverage made using whiskey or other alcohol, lemon and warm water or tea.
What the research says: There are no scientific studies looking at the direct effects that sipping on a hot toddy has on a cold's duration, but the beverage does have a lot going for it when you look at ingredients. Warm liquids help to thin mucus to alleviate congestion, and whiskey or other alcohol may seem to temporarily ease congestion to make breathing easier. Lemon adds a dose of vitamin C, and honey has antimicrobial properties as well as data to suggest it is an effective cough suppressant at bedtime. But I hesitate to recommend this remedy, since the effects of dehydration seen with alcohol consumption can work against the body's immune system response.
The bottom line: Be sure to keep dosage small and to get adequate hydration from other places if this is a remedy you like to use. However, if you've never tried it, you can get similar effects from sipping hot tea with a little lemon and honey—without any potential dehydration.
Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is author to the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.