Natural Cold Remedies: What Works, What Doesn’t

The physicians of the TV show The Doctors explain the best (and worst) ways to fight your cold naturally.

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Which natural cold remedies help you feel better?

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There is no cure for the common cold. Some natural cold treatments may relieve symptoms or slightly shorten the length of your illness, and some healthy habits may reduce your risk of getting a cold in the first place, but there's no silver bullet. But since many of our patients experiment with natural cold remedies anyway, we combed the latest studies for the best sniffle soothers.

Meditation

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Does it work? Adults who meditated for eight weeks had about one third fewer colds over the winter compared with a control group, an Annals of Family Medicine study found. Downside? Too busy feeling Zen to report any issues.

Exercise

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Does it work? The same Annals study found that people who began a moderately intense exercise program had 29 percent fewer colds than a control group. Mild exercise may relieve symptoms like congestion. Downside? Take care not to overexert yourself while you have symptoms like a cough.

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Sleep

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Does it work? People who got fewer than seven hours of sleep a night were nearly three times more likely to develop symptoms when exposed to a virus than those who got eight or more hours, research found. Downside? None—head to bed, and sleep tight.

Zinc

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Does it work? Worth a try. This mineral shortens illness by about a day (it stops the virus from replicating) if you take it within 24 hours of feeling sick, a 2013 Cochrane review of 18 randomized controlled trials found. Downside? Lozenges may leave a bad taste or cause nausea. Avoid nasal sprays, which can damage your sense of smell.

Probiotics

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Does it work? Not our favorite natural cold remedy; they may prevent colds. A 2011 analysis of ten studies found probiotics decreased the number of people who had at least one cold. But not all studies show benefits. Downside? They may cause bloating at first. Strains vary, but some studies used those in OTC brands, such as Lactobacillus.

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Echinacea

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Does it work? Most evidence suggests it's not useful, but some experts still recommend it. One New England Journal of Medicine study found that echinacea did not prevent or treat colds. A 2014 review of 24 trials found that echinacea shortened colds more than a placebo, but evidence wasn't strong. Downside? Studies use various preparations, plant parts, and species, so results are hard to generalize. Side effects aren't common, but check with your doctor if you're allergic to plants in the daisy family (including ragweed).

Vitamin C

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Does it work? Pass. Maybe the most studied of the bunch, vitamin C falls short of the mark. In a 2013 review of 29 trials, it didn't reduce colds. Huge doses to ease symptoms had small effects in some but not all studies. Downside? Expensive urine. The studies didn't find risks, although megadoses can cause stomach upset and possibly kidney stones if you're prone.

Ginseng

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Does it work? Skip it. Some trials have found that taking ginseng preventively shortened the duration of colds, but experts question how well the studies were done and worry about inconsistent results. Downside? It's generally safe, but it might lower blood sugar (a concern for people with diabetes). In high doses, it can cause headaches and insomnia.


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