21 Natural Cold Remedies That Really Work
Turn your kitchen cabinet into a medicine cabinet with these natural cold remedies, featuring herbs, spices, and other everyday options, to stifle the sniffles and more
Although oregano is best known for giving pizza and pasta an extra kick, Patrick Fratellone, MD, a leading integrative medicine doctor and registered herbalist with the American Herbal Guild, recommends reaching for this herb to treat a hacking cough. “Oregano is a powerhouse of flu-fighting properties, since it’s antibacterial, antifungal, and an antioxidant, and it can also be used as an expectorant to treat lung or respiratory conditions,” says Dr. Fratellone.
You could take an oregano capsule twice a day with meals, but if all you have on hand is a bottle of the dried herb, you can make an oregano tea: Pour eight ounces of boiling water over one teaspoon of dried oregano and let stand for ten minutes. If the taste is too bitter, add some raw honey. Aim to drink two cups a day. This elixir can also be used topically to treat skin infections and calm down an upset stomach. Check out 10 natural cold remedies that are always worth trying.
This woody aromatic herb in your culinary closet has secret powers besides flavoring oatmeal and cookies, and deserves to be on your list of natural cold remedies. Because of cinnamon’s antifungal and analgesic properties, Dr. Fratellone uses it to treat bronchitis. It tends to be warming for the body, and it dilates your blood vessels, he says. (Cinnamon also lowers blood sugar concentration and improves insulin sensitivity, which is why it is also being used to treat people who have diabetes.) If you’re looking to fight a bug with natural cold remedies, create a cinnamon tea by pouring boiling water over the herb into a cup. Dr. Fratellone recommends one cup two or three times a day. You can also sprinkle it on your food or in your latte.
This stinky plant does way more than flavor your tomato sauce. Garlic is antibiotic, antimicrobial, and antibacterial, says clinical herbalist and New York City–based founder of Urban Herbalist Steve Sietos. “When you have yellow or green phlegm, reach for that garlic. It’s highly antiviral, immune stimulating, and it’ll kill any upper respiratory infections,” he says. Garlic is great medicine for yeast infections and urinary tract infections, too, according to research from the Birla Institute of Technology and Sciences in India.
To use it as an elixir, take a clove of fresh garlic. Press or chop it, and let it sit for 15 minutes. When the garlic reacts with air, a chemical reaction transforms the clove into a powerful antibiotic, says Sietos, who also treats pets with herbs. He says that if you spread garlic and olive oil on a piece of bread or mix it with olive oil, it’ll knock out any upper respiratory infections. Check out these other surprising health benefits of garlic.
Ginger is a muscle relaxant, or an antispasmodic, which means it may have the power to stop the spasm of coughing. It also stimulates the immune system. “When you have a clear phlegm, not green or yellow, take ginger to warm up the system,” Sietos says. Slice fresh ginger into silver-dollar slices and simmer it in fresh water for 20 minutes; then drink it like tea. Add a cinnamon stick or a squeeze of lemon. “You’ll notice the cough goes away pretty quickly,” says Sietos. And if your stomach is feeling queasy, ginger can help with nausea, too, according to a study in the British Journal of Anesthesia. Also try these other natural cough treatments for relief.
One of the more unpleasant cold symptoms is that achy, restless feeling that makes it difficult to sleep, even though you feel exhausted. When that happens, head to your spice stash and pull out the nutmeg. Nutmeg contains tryptophan, the same stuff that makes us pass out after a heavy turkey meal on Thanksgiving. Nutmeg is also amazing for sleep. “Grate nutmeg on your food or into your tea—it’ll knock you right out, says Sietos. Find out why you get so sleepy when you’re sick.
“Rosemary is highly antiviral and antibacterial,” Sietos says. “Everything you smell in that signature aroma is medicine.” How do you take this fragrant elixir? If you’re working with fresh rosemary, simmer it in water for ten minutes and cool. Drink it three times a day until your cold is gone, Sietos recommends. If you’re working with dried rosemary, take a teaspoon and steep it in a cup of hot water to create a sipping tea. Check out how rosemary and other natural remedies can also work on headaches.
Self-heal is also known as Prunella vulgaris, and it’s one of Dr. Fratellone’s favorite herbs. “Also called ‘all heal,’ this herb is great for congestion, and it reduces swelling in the lymph glands,” he says. “It actually has an antibiotic effect against a wide range of bacteria and viruses,” he says. Self-heal can also be used to treat sore throats. Try using it to create a tea and drinking it two or three times a day when you’re feeling under the weather.
Thyme is a lovely aromatic herb in the mint family that’s easily cultivated, and it is probably in your kitchen cabinet right now. “Thyme is a powerful antimicrobial remedy that has volatile oils, like thymol and tannins, which work for spasmodic coughs and for fighting sickness,” says clinical herbalist Arielle Hayat of the Alchemist’s Kitchen. “It’s antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral, so it can help you sweat out a cold, and also work on supporting digestion (like other herbs in the mint family),” she says.
Hayat likes to prepare thyme in a syrup. She melts local organic honey and infuses it with chopped onions, thyme, and/or garlic for three hours, then strains it and adds the resulting syrup to warm water or a tea as a tonic for cold, achy flu, or cough. If you use a tincture, the dosage is one to four milliliters. Tea dosage is one to two teaspoons of herb to four cups of water in a six- to eight-hour infusion three times a day. Check out these 11 things doctors do to treat the flu.
A rose is not just lovely and fragrant—it’s also super-duper high in vitamin C and is a great ingredient when you’re looking for natural cold remedies. In addition to helping to treat symptoms of the common cold and flu, it can also help treat other infections and illness, says Hayat. According to studies, every 100 grams of fresh wild rose hips contains 1,250 grams of vitamin C, which is 30 times the amount of vitamin C in citrus fruits. And it has advantages over citrus because Sietos says that drinking orange juice when you have a cold can cause phlegm.
Wild rose hips are also rich in minerals like zinc and selenium, which helps stimulate the function of the kidneys and bladder and helps to flush the system. Try making a rose-petal infusion or “decoction”—the immersion of plants in hot water, like an infusion, but left on a low simmer (it can be steeped in a crockpot) to soothe a sore throat and reduce swelling. Check out the best cold and flu medications to always keep handy.
OK, so you may not already have this one in your pantry—but you’ll want to consider stocking up to add it to your options for natural cold remedies. Inula helenium, or elecampane, is an herb to be used for congested coughs. “If your cold leaves you coughing up phlegm with a dry, irritated lung and throat, elecampane is the perfect remedy,” Hayat says. “It soothes irritation and relieves coughing while fighting infections with its antimicrobial properties.”
The starchy root contains polysaccharides (inulin), which are useful for normalizing blood sugar metabolism and feeding the beneficial bacteria in the gut. You could call it a prebiotic, which feeds the probiotics, the community of microorganisms in your small intestine. Try taking a tincture of elecampane (Hayat likes HerbPharm), half to two milliliters three times a day. If you prefer to drink a tea, take a half ounce of dried root in two cups of water infused for six hours. Aim to drink two cups a day.
You won’t find this one in your cabinet, but regular, moderate physical activity can strengthen your immune system, boosting your ability to fight off cold and flu viruses. One 2006 study of sedentary, overweight women found that those who started exercising for 45 minutes five days a week were three times less likely to catch colds than women who just stretched once a week. Doctors aren’t sure exactly why or how exercise works, but some researchers theorize that physical activity helps germ-fighting antibodies and white blood cells circulate better and more rapidly. Pick up a few other habits that naturally boost your immune system.
Spending time outdoors leads to faster healing and a lower risk of all kinds of illnesses, including respiratory troubles, according to a 2015 review of research published in Frontiers in Psychology. Nature is “like a multivitamin that provides us with all sorts of the nutrients we need,” says lead study author Ming Kuo.
Being in nature switches one’s body into a calm, “rest and digest” mode instead of a stressed-out “fight or flight” condition. During times of stress, the body shuts down “nonessential” systems like digestion and the immune system, she explains. But “when we feel completely safe, our body devotes resources to long-term investments that lead to good health outcomes—growing, reproducing, and building the immune system,” Kuo adds. “When we are in nature in that relaxed state, and our body knows that it’s safe, it invests resources toward the immune system.”
Using a neti pot to pour warm saline solution into one nostril and out the other will thin mucus and clean out nasal passages, reducing sinus swelling, congestion, and nasal irritation, research shows. In one recent British study, researchers found that people with chronic sinus trouble had a significant reduction in symptoms after using a neti pot daily. Neti pots are an ancient Indian practice; find out about a bunch more old-time remedies that really work.
Lots of fluids
When it comes to advice about natural cold remedies, drinking lots of fluids is something people with a cold or the flu often hear. Here’s why: Symptoms of upper respiratory infection usually start in the nose, Evangeline Lausier, MD, an assistant clinical professor at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, told Reader’s Digest. “The cold virus attacks these nasal areas, and the body fights back by secreting more mucus to flush out the virus.” Drinking more fluids will keep the mucus thin and flowing so you can more easily clear it out of your system, Dr. Lausier says.
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Chicken soup is a favorite among natural cold remedies, and deservedly so: It really is an effective weapon against colds and flu, according to a famous study published in the Chest medical journal in 2000. The researchers found that chicken soup reduces inflammation, possibly because of the medicinal qualities of many of the traditional ingredients. Dr. Lausier agrees: “I think chicken soup is great for hydration—hot liquids, salt, and electrolytes. What goes in it can also provide healing properties: Onions and garlic can reduce the viscosity of mucus and help prevent or lessen congestion.” Chicken soup is an old wives’ tale that turned out to be true—but don’t fall for these 8 popular old myths that are still totally false.
Zinc lozenges can shorten the duration of colds if you start taking them within a day of feeling sick, according to the National Institutes of Health. But never use “intranasal” zinc swabs that you put up your nose—they can cause a permanent loss of smell.
Gargling with salt water reduces swelling in your throat when you’re sick and loosens germ-packed mucus, according to the Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies. But gargling daily when you’re healthy—with simple water—may help keep you from getting sick in the first place. An interesting study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that people who gargled three times a day with plain water for two months were about 30 percent less likely than non-garglers to get colds. Don’t ignore these 12 signs your common cold could be something worse.
Hot lemon water, and tea with honey, are traditional toddies to sip when you’re sick, for good reason: Not only does steam from the warm liquids thin mucus and soothe congestion, but the honey is also an effective cough suppressant. In a 2007 study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, researchers found that two teaspoons of honey before bed relieved sick kids’ coughing and helped them sleep better than over-the-counter cough medicine. (Just be sure never to give honey to a child under one year old because of the risk of botulism.) Amaze yourself with these 50 natural remedies that really work for all kinds of conditions.
“One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to allow your body to rest while you are feeling under the weather,” Ian Tong, MD, chief medical officer at Doctor on Demand, told Reader’s Digest. “Resting gives your body a chance to fight off the infection and can help boost your immune system.” Sleep is so powerful among natural cold remedies, in fact, that a 2009 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that subjects who got less than seven hours of rest a night were almost three times as likely to get colds as those who got at least eight hours of shut-eye. Don’t ignore these 9 ways you’re making your cold or flu worse.
Research on probiotics is mixed, and there’s not enough research to say for sure that they help fight colds and flu, according to the National Institutes of Health. That said, a review and meta-analysis of good-quality, randomized studies found that the supplements shorten the duration of upper respiratory infections in both children and adults. Try to avoid these 10 foods that are definitely not natural cold remedies.
Getting a final word on echinacea is tough because studies have used so many different doses and types—tea, tinctures, capsules—over the decades. Results are decidedly mixed, but the herb appears to be most effective if taken the moment you notice symptoms, and if you continue taking it for a week to ten days, according to the Mayo Clinic. Just be sure to talk to your doctor and check for drug interactions (there are quite a few!) before taking it. Now check out these 16 natural sore throat remedies.