First a sniffle, then a sneeze. Oh no, now you’re coughing. You need to get rid of this cold – and fast! But is there anything you can do without medicine or seeing your doctor?
Your family, friends and co-workers have different advice – Take zinc! Load up on vitamin C! Have you tried Vicks on your feet? What?!
We talked to primary care physician Laurie Hommema, MD, to find out which home cold remedies actually work, and which ones you should avoid.
Vitamins and supplements
Many people turn to vitamins and other natural or herbal remedies to treat a cold, some of the most common being vitamin C, echinacea and zinc.
“There have been quite a few studies to test the effectiveness of these remedies,” says Dr. Hommema. “Neither vitamin C nor echinacea has been shown to have a statistically significant effect on cold symptoms. Taking multiple doses of vitamin C won’t hurt you, but it’s better to get it from the foods you eat. Many other vitamins, like A, E and D are fat-soluble and doses that are too high can lead to serious complications. Echinacea also can cause troublesome side effects, like nausea and diarrhea.”
But wait, there’s good news! She says zinc, elderberry extract and two newer herbal remedies – Umcka ColdCare (Pelargonium sidoides) and Kalmcold (andrographis paniculata) – are proven to decrease the duration of your cold by up to two days. “You have to be very careful with zinc, though, because nasal sprays can cause permanent loss of smell. If you want to try zinc, stick to an oral preparation.”
She recommends that you always talk to your primary care provider before taking vitamins or supplements, especially if you are taking other medications. Many vitamins and supplements are not regulated and could lead to more trouble than a cold.
Foods and alcohol
Eating certain foods won’t have much effect on a cold once you have one, says Dr. Hommema. Instead, she recommends eating a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables to keep your immune system primed year-round.
“The only food that is backed by any real evidence is honey, which is an effective cough suppressant, particularly in kids,” she says. “But it is only safe for kids over the age of 1. You can give them about 1 teaspoon every four hours.”
Some foods, like ginger and garlic, can even be dangerous when taken as concentrated supplements, she says, if you take blood thinners or blood pressure medications.
And that hot toddy? Dr. Hommema says forget it. “Alcohol should never be used to treat an ailment. All the whiskey is doing is making you forget you have a cold.”
Essential oils are naturally occurring compounds found in plants. Many people diffuse them into the air of their home or in a steamy shower to help with cold symptoms.
“Diffusing oils involves increasing humidity in the air, which can help open nasal passages and improve drainage,” says Dr. Hommema, “But you have to be very careful with the components of essential oils. Some people even ingest them, which can cause bigger problems. Even if they seem safe because they’re normal kitchen ingredients, you should really run them by your primary care provider before using them, particularly if you’re on medication.”
Warm liquids and steam inhalation
Sipping warm liquids like chicken noodle soup, or inhaling steam from a vaporizer or a hot shower, can be effective at keeping congested nasal passages moist and loosened, says Dr. Hommema. “Just make sure you stick to warm water and steam. Adding oils, vinegar or baking soda to steam can cause irritation and burns.”
Vapor rub, commonly Vicks Vaporub, is a topical ointment that contains medicated vapors to help soothe a cold when inhaled. While intended to be applied to your chest and throat, many people now claim putting it on your feet stops a cough overnight.
“Nowhere in the literature does it say this can be helpful. It certainly isn’t going to hurt you, but I’m always nervous about putting something on your feet and then covering it with socks because it can lead to skin breakdown, irritation, rashes and, eventually, if your feet remain moist too long, you could get a foot fungus. It’s probably most effective on your chest.”
Wearing wet socks to bed
This one may seem a little far-fetched, but some people claim taking a hot bath and then wearing ice-cold, wet socks to bed for three nights in a row will increase blood circulation and stimulate your immune system to fight off a cold. Again, the only thing this will do is set you up for athlete’s foot and other fungal infections, or long-term skin breakdown, says Dr. Hommema.
You can use many over-the-counter medications to treat the symptoms of a cold, including analgesics like ibuprofen or acetaminophen for moderate to severe pain symptoms, says Dr. Hommema. But, make sure you keep in mind any other medications you may be taking.
“Pseudoephedrine, which is a decongestant you obtain from behind the pharmacy counter, is proven to be effective. But you need to talk to your primary care provider before taking it, especially if you are on blood pressure medications or have thyroid issues. Its alternative, phenylephrine, which is not kept behind the counter in the pharmacy, is no more effective than a placebo.”
She also says to be cautious when using combination drugs, which often contain antihistamines that can make you drowsy, or acetaminophen, which is dangerous with certain medical conditions.
The painful truth
At the end of the day, the common cold is caused by many viruses and there is no quick cure.
“The symptoms of a cold start slowly, build over time and will always last on average 10 to 14 days, sometimes up to three weeks, no matter what you do,” says Dr. Hommema. “And antibiotics, which work against bacteria, never have a role in treating a virus, and can cause worse problems, like drug-resistant organisms.”
She says symptom-based treatments that make you more comfortable during the time you have a cold are your best option. So, if binge-watching Netflix, while you sip chicken soup, makes you feel better when you get sick, go for it!
Need a primary care physician who you can turn to when you get sick? Find one today.