November 13 2019

12 Natural Cold Remedies Examined: What Works and What Doesn’t

By Mark Sisson
50 Comments

Cold season is upon us. Vitamin D levels are down. People are cloistered indoors. Kids are walking petri dishes. Drug stores are advertising free flu shots. It’s that time of year. I’m sure a few of you are even sniffling as you read this, or maybe trying to ignore the pain of swallowing with a sore throat.

Colds seem like an inevitability, maybe not so much since you’ve cleaned up your diet, but nothing is 100% fool-proof. You will get sick. You will catch a cold. Or someone close to you will. What can you do for yourself? For your sick kid or partner? Are there any natural cold remedies that actually work?

Let’s look at them.

High Dose Vitamin C

Most studies find that vitamin C supplementation has little to no effect on the duration or severity of a cold. But not all. What seems to help, if anything, is a mega-dose of vitamin C.

In one study, taking 8 grams on the first day of the cold reduced illness a bit more than taking 4 grams.

A meta-analysis of studies concluded that taking 1 gram as a daily supplementary dose and 3-4 grams as a therapeutic dose at the onset of a cold could reduce the duration and severity.

Verdict: Vitamin C can’t hurt, so it’s worth a shot. Try 3-8+ grams when you feel the cold coming on, and supplement 500 mg-1 g during cold season.

Zinc

Having good zinc levels are a great preventive. A strong baseline intake of zinc-rich foods like shellfish and red meat is the first line of defense against upper respiratory infections.  But once you have a cold, or you feel one coming on, pounding zinc citrate lozenges or smoked oysters won’t make much of a difference. What can work is taking a specific type of zinc acetate, highlighted here by Chris Masterjohn.

Studies show that zinc acetate works very well at reducing the duration of colds, especially when you catch it early. Chris recommends using these lozenges every 1-2 hours when a cold first hits and letting them dissolve slowly in the mouth. It takes about 20-30 minutes for a single lozenge to dissolve, but this slow process is vital for actually getting the cold-busting effect. Don’t chew.

Verdict: Zinc acetate taken at the onset can help. Other forms of zinc are important for prevention (and general health), but probably aren’t therapeutic.

Elderberry

Elderberry probably has the coolest name ever—like some folk medicine out of a Tolkien story. Plus, it works.

In intercontinental air travelers (a population at much greater risk for colds), taking elderberry syrup reduced total days with a cold (57 versus 117) and cold symptom score (247 versus 583, with higher being worse).

In a meta-analysis of controlled trials, elderberry syrup was also shown to reduce overall cold symptoms.

This elderberry syrup is very high quality, and even comes in a sugar-free (glycerin-based) form if you want to avoid any excess fructose.

Verdict: Works.

Chicken Broth

Does “Jewish penicillin” work? Yes, yes it does. Evidence confirms that chicken soup made from real chicken broth eases nasal congestion, improves the function of the nasal cilia protecting us from pathogen incursions, and reduces cold symptoms.

Does it have to be chicken? As most cultures include broth-based soup in their list of effective cold remedies, I suspect it’s the goodness of the broth that’s important and any true bone broth-based soup will work.

Verdict: Yes.

Garlic

Garlic is legit. Garlic can improve immune function and reduce the occurrence of common colds. In my opinion, it’s one of the best anti-cold foods around.

If I feel a cold coming on, I’ll crush and dice up an entire head of garlic and lightly simmer it in a big mug of bone broth. I find I am usually able to ward off whatever’s headed my way. Of course, that’s just an anecdote and the available evidence is more equivocal.

Another way I’ll eat garlic is to use black garlic—garlic that’s been aged for months until it turns black, soft, and sweet. Delicious and even more potent.

Aged garlic extract can also be an effective supplement.

Verdict: It works.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is controversial. I’m no expert myself—I’ve gotten it a a few times at urging from friends who swear by it—and while I found it relaxing and enjoyable, I didn’t get any amazing results. Then again, I wasn’t going in for anything in particular, nor did I stick with it for very long (apparently you need ongoing therapy). This article by Chris Kresser (who in addition to being a nutrition expert is a licensed acupuncturist) explains the effects and benefits of acupuncture from a Western perspective; it’s worth reading if you’ve been wondering about the therapy.

Does it work for colds?

There are some studies where it seems to help against the common cold. Like this study out of Japan or this series of case studies out of Korea. Both studies indicate the need for placebo-controlled trials to truly determine the efficacy, though. In 2018 there was a published “protocol” for just such a study, but as far as I can tell the results haven’t been published.

Even if it doesn’t lessen the severity of the cold itself, I know some friends who go for acupuncture toward the end of a cold to help speed sinus drainage.

Verdict: Unknown but perhaps.

Echinacea

Echinacea is a medicinal herb native to North America, where it was traditionally used as a painkiller, laxative, and anti-microbial agent (although they didn’t know what microbes were of course). Today, it’s best known as an immune modulator that reduces symptoms of the common cold. Does it work?

A Cochrane analysis of controlled trials found no benefit against colds, but it did note that “individual prophylaxis trials consistently show positive (if non-significant) trends.”

In other words, it very well might work, but we don’t have gold standard evidence in either direction.

Verdict: Might work.

Oregano Oil

Oregano oil has a long history of traditional use in treating infectious diseases, and it has potent anti-bacterial effects against a broad range of microbes. It fights athlete’s foot. It’s broadly anti-fungal. But there simply isn’t any strong evidence that it works against the common cold.

Verdict: Not much evidence it works for colds.

Steam

Back when I was a boy, my favorite thing to do when I had clogged up nostrils was to get in a really hot shower, close all the windows and doors, and read a good book as the steam loosened up the nasal passages. It really did work, albeit not for long. If the cold virus was still present, my nose would usually clog right back up afterwards.

Verdict: Good for momentary relief of clogged nostrils, like right before bed.

Spicy Food

Spicy food probably won’t destroy a cold outright, but it can safely (and deliciously) reduce the most annoying cold symptom: stuffy noses. Capsaicin, the chili pepper component that produces a burning sensation in mammalian tissue, reduces nasal inflammation. When your nasal blood vessels are inflamed, the walls constrict; the space gets tighter and you have trouble breathing. Studies indicate that capsaicin is effective against most symptoms of nasal congestion.

Verdict: Good for stuffy noses.

Nasal Irrigation

In Sanskrit, “neti” means “nasal cleansing.” The neti pot is a exactly what it sounds like. You fill a tiny plastic kettle with warm saline water, tilt your head over a sink, and pour the water into one nostril. It flows out the other one, clearing your nasal cavity and letting you breathe again. The scientific term is “nasal irrigation,” and it really does work, albeit only against one cold symptom. But let’s face it: the worst part of a bad cold is the stuffy nose that keeps you up at night, gives you dry mouth, and makes food taste bland. Neti pottin’ can fix that right up.

Also, it’s better than antibiotics in kids with rhinosinusitis. It even improves symptoms in infants with bronchiolitis, another kind of viral infection.

Verdict: Works.

Cod Liver Oil/Fish Oil

Standard childcare practice across the world, but especially in Northern European countries, used to be a big spoonful of cod liver oil every day on your way out the door. Cod liver oil is a great source of vitamin D, vitamin A, and omega-3s—all of which figure prominently in immune function. But studies of the individual nutrients in cold prevention or treatment have had unimpressive results. What might work, though, is cod liver oil.

One recent study found that while vitamin D levels or supplements had no effect on whether a person got a cold or not, the only thing that was associated with lower incidences of colds was taking cod liver oil (or even just regular fish oil) in the last 7 days. It’s not a huge effect, and it’s not necessarily causal, but it’s good enough for me to recommend it.

This is a great cod liver oil. This is a great fish oil (made by yours truly).

Verdict: Works (and is healthy otherwise, so might as well).

So, there you go: a good list of therapies, supplements, foods, and nutrients to include (or not) in your anti-cold regimen this season. If you have any suggestions, any recommendations, or questions, throw them in down below.

Thanks for reading, folks, and be well.

References:

Quidel S, Gómez E, Bravo-soto G, Ortigoza Á. What are the effects of vitamin C on the duration and severity of the common cold?. Medwave. 2018;18(6):e7261.

Anderson TW, Suranyi G, Beaton GH. The effect on winter illness of large doses of vitamin C. Can Med Assoc J. 1974;111(1):31-6.

Hemilä H, Petrus EJ, Fitzgerald JT, Prasad A. Zinc acetate lozenges for treating the common cold: an individual patient data meta-analysis. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2016;82(5):1393-1398.

Tiralongo E, Wee SS, Lea RA. Elderberry Supplementation Reduces Cold Duration and Symptoms in Air-Travellers: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial. Nutrients. 2016;8(4):182.

Hawkins J, Baker C, Cherry L, Dunne E. Black elderberry (Sambucus nigra) supplementation effectively treats upper respiratory symptoms: A meta-analysis of randomized, controlled clinical trials. Complement Ther Med. 2019;42:361-365.

Nantz MP, Rowe CA, Muller CE, Creasy RA, Stanilka JM, Percival SS. Supplementation with aged garlic extract improves both NK and ??-T cell function and reduces the severity of cold and flu symptoms: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled nutrition intervention. Clin Nutr. 2012;31(3):337-44.

Lissiman E, Bhasale AL, Cohen M. Garlic for the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014;(11):CD006206.

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50 thoughts on “12 Natural Cold Remedies Examined: What Works and What Doesn’t”

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  1. Vitamin C powder tastes good. It’s lemony. I’ve mixed into various drinks and even just water.

  2. Nice, I just had three bowls of high quality chicken and I think ground turkey soup with hot sauce before reading this, at a drop-in center. It’s about to close so if there’s any left I think I’ll be taking it. I like to feast on good meals sometimes and then I won’t need to eat for another day or so, especially with my food stash all frozen.

  3. A product called Super Lysine has always helped.
    I take it as soon as there is a hint of something going on. Haven’t had the flu or a cold in years.

  4. Yes, Vit C mega dosed works. Shortens my cold duration from 7 to 3 or 4 days. I haven’t tested the other methods, but steam feels great.

  5. I have good results with C and D at first sign or hint of cold. I probably run a little low on D most of the time, so taking it at hint of cold (or when someone else I work with or live with has a cold) really changes the playing field for the cold virus trying to get me. I do take zinc acetate when I get a cold.

    1. There are spray bottles of sterile saline for this purpose in most pharmacies. There’s no need to use a neti unless you simply like it better.

      There’s a xynase spray that I like also for when I’m not ready for a full “sniff the water” experience.

      I really don’t like the usual nasal sprays, they leave me more stuffy than before, within 3 hours.

      1. The problem with the spray bottles is they are one time use. We mix our own neti powder and make a quart of neti water (boiled, with neti powder) at a time, which we heat when ready to use. No waste there whatsoever.

  6. There are so many products in cold and flu that are containing ingredients that contradict so much of what this group finds important. Luckily there are now supplements like vitamin D that does not have any nasty inactive ingredients which have worked for our family, and they make us feel better about what our kids use when they are sick. Make sure to look at your medicines, its unbelievable whats in them that can impact your health.

  7. My colds have been few since starting Primal ~10 years ago. Now they are very rare and very short and light. The winter before I started Primal, I had continuous colds except for the three cases of the flu. (I haven’t gotten the flu once since. And I do not get the vaccine.)
    When I feel a cold coming on, I suck on the zinc acetate tablets that Chris Masterjohn recommends. That usually stops the cold in its tracks.
    When I or my housemate actually gets a cold, I make “Thai penicillin,” Thai chicken soup. It has everything in Jewish penicillin plus peppers to clear the sinuses. Sometimes I make Mexican penicillin. It frustrates me to see friends and relatives having cold after cold, each lasting for weeks.

  8. On the steam, if you put some vinegar in it while it steams on the stove, it will clear your sinus’ and you’ll be able to breathe while you can be within the room where it’s steaming or close to it. Doesn’t help with inflammation but clearing the clog? Yep. Works better than any pill and no side effects.

  9. Yup, Think Zinc. Always works. Elderberry and the Neti Pot work great too. 9 years and two tiny sniffles since going Primal.

  10. Oregano oil may not prevent a cold, but diluted oregano oil as a poultice on my throat or chest sure stops that nasty cough. Good before bed.

  11. I was definitely coming down with a cold yesterday–tired, dry/sore feeling starting to creep into my throat–but I pounded elderberry syrup for 24 hours and I’m totally fine today! I took 1 tsp every hour…I know that’s way more than the recommended dose, but hey, looks like it worked ? Anecdotally, at least 3 other people I know have nipped their colds in the bud with elderberry syrup, too.

  12. Nice list! I’d add, goldenseal/myrrh combinations, gotu kola which seems to help me with body aches and brain fog during a cold, and cinnamon…

    The spicy food thing is a really widespread remedy. There’s an old story of a ruler in India who moved away from a sacred river and his guru gave him a food prescription that included a certain number of hot peppers daily. I heard that one years ago, I think, in a book about India. But I’m guessing there are similar stories from many cultures.

    I had to develop a taste for spicy food, but it was worth it. I’m much more tolerant of histamine ever since.

    Speaking of which, quercetin is a long term antihistamine with some science behind it. People with abnormal mast cell activation sometimes get some relief from it. That would be worth a bit of research.

  13. I think neti potting would feel unpleasant.
    One time I got over a cold one night by smoking a joint. After I finished it I felt like there was some sort of good energy flowing through me and building up and I crouched down all tightened up, feeling like the energy was peaking, and then stood up and threw my arms out and I felt a lot better after and by the next morning I didn’t feel like I had a cold anymore. Cannabis is good for the immune system, I’m guessing better for it than science has discovered. Of course smoking probably isn’t going to be that helpful if you have a sore throat or other respiratory infection. Maybe vape, or steam it like athelas in Lord of the Rings? (I share Mark’s sentiments about elderberry.) Vaping can irritate the throat though. I was surprised at that when I first tried one that someone gave me. I took a big shatter puff, thinking it was just an e-cig because that’s what the guy said (“I found this e-cig on the table in there, do you want it?”), and it scratched my throat and made me cough a bit.
    Tonight I decided to get myself a little treat and did something I haven’t done since most of a year ago: took some dextromethorphan, which I’m waiting to kick in. So I’ll be using my new good bong I found. It got a bit damaged from a stupid arrest recently but still works fine. I think that dextromethorphan might actually ramp up your immune system too even though it’s basically just recognized as an anti-tussive. Regarding that arrest, I was just caught using the bong somewhere and then jumped on/tackled and held down after letting them cuff me while I was sitting. The guy was bigger than me but I was so mad I was able to do a bit of a pushup and lift him up a bit when he was on my back and then it was a good thing that I got in a nice cop’s car because I vented by punching and elbowing the divider window until it had a big crack in it. They’ll have to replace that but I didn’t get charged with mischief, thankfully. They brought me to the hospital for a bit, that’s all, where I was offered and accepted a T3.
    I use hot sauce to help relieve congestion (which I get from that ganja habit). I find a good expectorant combo is a moderate amount of beer and coffee and a lot of hot sauce. Too much alcohol will depress your immune system and too much coffee can make my respiratory system go dry.

    1. an·ar·chy

      noun

      1. a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority

      Seems about right. 😉

    2. I should add that too much caffeine is inhibitory to the parasympathetic nervous system / immune system.

  14. Thanks Mark. What about taking a sauna? It feels good, of course, to warm yourself up nice and toasty when it’s freezing outside. But I’ve heard that raising your body temperature slightly in a sauna will kill off some of the nasty bacteria that cause illness. Is there scientific validation of this?

    1. I’ve read something like for every degree (can’t remember Fahrenheit or Celsius, probably Farenheit) that your body temperature rises, your immune system activity is multiplied by 10.

  15. Super helpful… I’m a fan of Alkalol, a circa 1896 nasal wash that comes with a neti pot variant I find easier to use.

    Appreciate the specific product recs. My homemade elderberry potions also seem to help – very gratifying, for those inclined to forage…

  16. Just don’t try doing a workout after using neti pot. Even hours later bending over can cause a sudden, unexpected flood!

  17. Living in Iceland I can tell you that the one spoon a day of cod liver oil is still practced for most children and some adults (recommended from the time they start weaning to food)

  18. Great list, thanks! Curious what you think of Viracid or oscillococcinum … though I realize they are not foods.

  19. Great timing, Zinc & and homemade soups work best. Somehow I become dihydrated during the winter.

  20. Copious amounts of activated charcoal – every 5-6 hours depends on the body weight. Vit C megadose as well – loads of it in fermented cabbage, better than lemon.

  21. I used to take a hot bath for about an hour. I would add hot water periodically to increase the temperature. The steam would help clear my nose and it seemed like I was self inducing a fever. I would sweat profusely. I would do this before bed when I had a cold. It seemed to shorten the duration of the cold.

    I suspect it may raise blood pressure (though I haven’t researched it) so be careful if that is a concern

  22. Jala neti does more than help clear a stuffy nose. It flushes irritant particles from nasal passages and can decrease postnasal drip that causes a sore throat and a cough. I have learned to reach for my stainless steel neti pot before anything else.

  23. Strong yerba mate with hot magnesium salt bath suppose to help. I’m guessing some other things mentioned in article may be added too. Fortunately I didn’t have to use it so I unfortunately can’t say if yerba and mg salt bath works.

  24. Can confirm zinc acetate works. I started it almost exactly a year ago and will do the recommended dose – at the first sign of a cold, suck on a lozenge every 1-2 hours for the first 2 days (8-10 lozenges total).

    With 2 young kids (pre-school and kindergarten), we get a pretty good onslaught of cold viruses in the winter, and I’m convinced I’ve warded off at least 5 colds this past year. If I do come down with a cold, the symptoms are greatly reduced and only last 2-3 days instead of 5-7.

  25. Years ago, I decided to see how much money I was wasting on vitamins. I broke the lowest mg vitamin C tablet in half and waited to see if my urine was dark indicating what my body wasn’t using. It was darker than without it. My body wasn’t absorbing much of any vitamin C.
    Fast forward a decade later, and I have cut out ALL forms of sugar. Now I can take almost 8 thousand mgs. with no perceptible change in the color of my urine. It is ALL being absorbed by my body.
    For those who can’t stop consuming sugar, there’s this stuff called “lypos-spheric ” which allows whatever you’re taking to be absorbed by the body, but you’re better off just eliminating sugar.

    F

  26. What seems to work for me every time is garlic vodka. You can find some details on the internet but the basic preparation is following. Take a head of garlic, chop it finely, put it in a jar, pour 0,5 litre voda in the jar, let it be for 3 weeks shaking it twice a day and then filter garlic vodka discarding the garlic. Use just drops of it; they say 20 drops 3 times a day at most.

  27. Homeopathic Cold Calm tablets work wonders for us. At the first signs of a cold, we take a set of the tablets and feel better within the hour. Sometimes we need to do another set the next day, but never more than that. If we have already been ill for a few days before starting the Cold Calm, it has been less effective.

  28. I don’t get colds. I haven’t had a cold in years, although I don’t do anything specific to avoid or prevent them.

    I used to get several severe colds every winter. Then an alternative healthcare practitioner told me to stop medicating them with OTC products and just let them run their course without interference. He said, “Let your immune system do its job.” It was very much counter to conventional wisdom, but I was desperate enough to try it.

    At first it was pretty miserable, because all I did was sip hot drinks to allow the steam to clear my nose a little. I didn’t use anything else at all. But the number of colds I got lessened until over the course of a few years, I stopped getting sick altogether.

    That was over 20 years ago. I’ve had only a couple of light colds since then that only amounted to a scratchy throat for a day or two. Apparently, medicating a cold, which usually isn’t very effective anyway, keeps the immune system from “recognizing” and preventing them from occurring in the first place.

    That’s probably an oversimplification, and there may be other factors at play as well. I’m sure a healthful diet and lifestyle help considerably.

    The other thing is, keep a little dirt in your life. You don’t need to live in filth. Just don’t be a germaphobe and go overboard with the antibacterial products. Trying to eradicate every germ in your life is counterproductive to good health.

  29. Surprised by the lack of love for Oil of Oregano (specifically carvacrol). My (and my clients’) anecdotes of OoO’s anti-viral properties have been strong. Granted there isn’t a *ton* of research behind it, or most essential oils for the matter. A book called “Cure In the Cupboard” compiles most of the research behind the stuff. Two I found from quick Googling:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24779581
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/oregano-oil-antiviral-but-weak/

    1. I agree. It seems Oil of Oregano (and even just plain oregano) has been downplayed here; even though it offers many health benefits – mostly for the immune system as well as infections of all kinds.

    2. I had what must’ve been the flu last year, but it was so mild I wasn’t sure. But it would’ve been very bad for a cold. I had been taking oil of oregano for SIBO at the time. Later I read oil of oregano can mitigate the flu. Sooooo……. I’m on board.

  30. I have to disagree with Mark’s fish oil supplement. The shape of these pills are very hard to swallow. I got them on two for one and no one else in my family would take them because they were so hard to swallow. They leave you feeling like they are lodged somewhere in your throat. Has anyone else had this experience with this product.

  31. I beg to differ about Vitamin C. You just need a much higher dosage. Every time I feel the telltale signs of an infection coming on, I do a Vitamin C flush: take say, 1 gram of Vitamin C every 30 minutes until you reach bowel tolerance. If you have an incipient infection, you might go the entire day without reaching bowel tolerance – what I do then is increase the frequency of dosages. Then the next day I’ll take slightly less than the previous day’s total in a few doses. I can usually stave off a anything coming my way by this method.

  32. The Sweat Broth
    Raw Ginger -3 pieces unskinned the size of your thumb
    3 medium sized garlic cloves
    3 or 4 full Green Onions cut to fit the pot.
    3 cups water
    Boil all ingredients then simmer until you have a cup left. Drink then dress warm & get under the covers & go to sleep. Your pores will open & you will sweat like a pig. Recipe given to me from a PhD in Chinese Medicine

  33. I rarely get sick thank God, and I attribute it to a splash of apple cider once a day in my water.

  34. We hardly get sick now that we are basically primal, and especially gluten free. But before that, these worked and they still do at the slightest bit of cold and that’s it.
    1) raw garlic chopped into pill size bits (1 clove’s worth) and swallowed. Supposedly garlic is more powerfull in the first few minutes after it’s cut.
    2) agree on elderberry
    3) Oil of oregano (which I was already taking for SIBO, and unaware of it’s flu fighting power at the time) made a flu turn into more of a terrible cold–worse than a cold, but not so bad I was certain it was the flu. Then I read it helps the flu.
    4) HUGE fan of neti pot. I do it every morning and any time my head feels stuffed up. Big difference.
    5) An essential oil diffuser with Thieves oil in it. Sniff it into the nostrils for moisturizing and germ killing. Seems to prevent the sinus infection that can come from a cold or bad allergies.
    6) Taking Theives essential oil directly as cold symptoms start–or after being around sick people.
    7) honey and cinnomon blended together
    8) Sinus tea (there are many around, but we really liked Minus Sinus and now make our own based on it–put in a tea ball–less waste than tea bags) plus honey and lemon. Sniff in the vapors while it’s hot. Does wonders for a stuffy head.
    9) There is a drink online that is some variation that includes ginger, ACV, spicey pepper, cinnomon, and more that people swear by.
    10) honey for a cough–especially in the middle of the night.