No matter how much you wash your hands or clean up your diet and lifestyle, it’s hard to avoid the common cold entirely. Eventually, if you encounter other humans out in the world, you will catch a cold. Those of you with kids in school or daycare might feel like you spend more time sick than you spend healthy, especially in the winter months.
Given the inevitability, we all have a shared interest in learning how to beat a cold as quickly as possible. There’s no shortage of folk remedies out there—everyone’s grandma probably had her own tried and true method of kicking a col. But which natural cold remedies actually work?
Let’s look at some of the most popular recommendations for natural cold remedies, distinguishing between those that could help you get better more quickly, ones that will at least provide some symptom relief, and ones that won’t hurt but might not help.
Natural Cold Remedies That Are Likely Effective
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 feel a cold coming on, pounding smoked oysters won’t make much of a difference.
What can work is popping lozenges containing zinc acetate or zinc gluconate. Studies show that either form of zinc, taken in doses of between 75 and 100 grams per day, can significantly shorten the amount of time you’re sick.123 But you have to start as soon as you start experiencing symptoms, ideally within the first 24 hours.
Verdict: Zinc acetate or gluconate taken at the onset of symptoms can help. Slowly suck on a lozenge every couple of hours for the first few days of the cold, until symptoms start to abate.
Garlic is legit. Garlic can improve immune function4 and reduce the occurrence of common colds.5
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’m usually able to ward off whatever’s headed my way. Of course, that’s just an anecdote; the available evidence is more equivocal.6
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 a useful supplement.
Verdict: Effective. It will also keep your loved ones at a safe distance so they don’t get sick.
Elderberry has the folksiest sounding name on this list—and it actually seems to work, at least for reducing the severity of a cold once you’ve come down with it.
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, compared to a placebo.7 In a small meta-analysis of controlled trials, elderberry syrup was also shown to reduce overall cold symptoms.8
Verdict: Works, but it’s not clear how much you should take for best results.
If you’re like me, you have strong (if not necessarily fond) sensory memories of your mother rubbing Vick’s VapoRub into your chest at the first sign of a respiratory infection. Well, your mom was right to do so. It works, and that’s thanks in part to the eucalyptus oil that’s one of the active ingredients.
People have been using the eucalyptus plant for centuries to treat cold, flu, bronchitis, and other respiratory issues. Compounds in eucalyptus act as an expectorant, helping you to cough up that nasty gunk filling your lungs, and they’re also anti-viral.910
Now, I can hear you balking at the suggestion of using Vick’s, but there are plenty of similar, non-petrolatum-based rubs out there. Alternatively, get yourself a diffuser and pure eucalyptus oil, and diffuse it by your bedside.
Verdict: Works, for chest congestion especially.
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.
Superpower your next hot shower by placing a few drops of eucalyptus essential oil in the corner of the shower and let the aromatherapy go to work.
Verdict: Good for temporary relief of clogged nostrils, like right before bed.
Though limited, there’s some evidence that chicken soup can help unstuff your nasal passages11 and inhibit the inflammation caused by a cold virus.1213 Given that most cultures include broth-based soup in their list of effective cold remedies, I’m inclined to say this one works even without a ton of scientific confirmation.
Spicy food probably won’t destroy a cold outright, but it can safely (and deliciously) reduce the most annoying cold symptom: stuffy nose. Capsaicin, the chili pepper component that produces a burning sensation in mammalian tissue, reduces nasal inflammation.14 When your nasal blood vessels are inflamed, the walls constrict, the space gets tighter, and you have trouble breathing.
Studies indicate that capsaicin nasal sprays are effective against most symptoms of nasal congestion.15 But anyone who has taken on a hot wing challenge knows that a spicy dish is all it takes to get things flowing.
Verdict: Good for stuffy noses. Keep plenty of tissues on hand.
In Sanskrit, “neti” means “nasal cleansing.” The neti pot is a tiny kettle you fill 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 to relieve congestion.16 It’s also better than antibiotics in kids with rhinosinusitis17 and even improves symptoms in infants with bronchiolitis, another kind of viral infection.18
For safety, use only distilled or boiled water cooled to just slightly warmer than room temperature.
Remedies That Won’t Hurt But Might Not Help
At least not according to the available evidence…
Vitamin C plays a central role in immunity, so you might expect that vitamin C supplementation is a slam dunk for knocking out a cold—but you’d be wrong. Most studies find that supplementing with vitamin C has little to no effect on preventing the common cold or reducing the duration or severity once you’re sick.19
The possible exception is in people experiencing short-term, very high physical stress, which can deplete immune resources. Soldiers participating in arctic training exercises who took 1 gram of supplemental vitamin C per day were significantly less likely to get sick than their counterparts who were given a placebo.20 Likewise, Korean soldiers who took 6 grams daily during a month of training got fewer colds,21 as did athletes training for the 90km Comrades Marathon who got at least 1 gram per day (combined food and supplement) in the three weeks before the race.22
(Note that anything above 2 grams per day is generally considered a high dose. You won’t OD, but you might start experiencing digestive side effects. If so, dial back the dose.)
Verdict: Doesn’t seem to do much for the average person, but as a preventative measure during a period of acute high stress (physical, but possibly also mental since it’s all related), it might help stave off illness. Once you’re already sick, adding vitamin C probably won’t help.
Cod liver 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. However, studies of the individual nutrients for cold prevention or treatment have had unimpressive results.
There still might be something to cod liver oil, though. Some older academic papers from the first half of the 20th century claim that a daily spoonful of cod liver oil prevents viral infections and reduces the number of sick days workers took.2324 And a more recent study found that kids who took cod liver oil with a multivitamin got fewer upper respiratory tract infections.25
That’s not a lot of evidence to go on, but it’s otherwise healthy, so you might as well go ahead and take it if you’re so inclined, especially if you aren’t regularly eating small, oily fish.
Verdict: Possibly works for prevention. No evidence it helps once you’re sick.
Echinacea is a medicinal herb native to North America, where it was traditionally used as a painkiller, laxative, and anti-microbial agent (although they weren’t targeting specific microbes, 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.”26
In other words, it very well might work, but we don’t have gold-standard evidence in either direction.
Verdict: Maybe, but don’t hang your hat on it.
So, there you go—some things to add to your anti-cold regimen this season. If you have any suggestions, recommendations, or questions, throw them in the comments down below.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.