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The ABCs of Alternative Cold Remedies
Learn the truth about commonly used alternative treatments for the common cold.

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The ABCs of Alternative Cold Remedies

Let's face it: Colds can be miserable. The sneezing, the runny nose, the cough - you want it to be over, and fast.

But there is no cure for the common cold. Some alternative treatments promise protection or quick relief from symptoms. But in many cases, research has shown that they don't live up to their claims. They may even cause harmful side effects. So it's important to learn the truth about alternative remedies.

Before you take alternative therapies or over-the-counter medicines, check with your doctor. This is especially important for pregnant women, people who take prescription medicine or those who have certain health conditions.

Popular alternative therapies
Here are some commonly used alternative treatments.

Echinacea. The echinacea plant, or coneflower, is believed by some to strengthen the immune system. When your immune system is at its best, it can fight off colds more effectively.

But the research results on echinacea are mixed and inconclusive. Some studies showed no benefit in preventing or treating colds. Others have shown that it may help reduce the duration or severity of colds in adults.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a government agency, is continuing to support study of echinacea for treatment of upper respiratory infections.

Echinacea usually does not cause side effects. But some people have an allergic reaction to it. Those who are allergic to plants in the daisy family, including ragweed, chrysanthemums and marigolds, are more likely to have a reaction to echinacea. The same is true for people with asthma.

Zinc. This is a metal. The body needs very small amounts of zinc. Among other things, zinc helps with immune function. Zinc comes in two main forms: the kind that goes in your mouth and the kind you apply inside your nose.

Nasal zinc comes in swabs or gels. This form of zinc can cause a long-lasting or permanent loss of the sense of smell and should be avoided. The Food and Drug Administration warned consumers in 2009 to stop using several intranasal zinc products for this reason.

Oral zinc is sold in lozenges, tablets and syrup. In these forms, it may help tackle colds. Some studies have shown it to reduce the length and severity of colds if taken within 24 hours of the start of symptoms.

But it can also cause side effects. Those include nausea and other stomach problems. Using zinc for a long time in high doses can reduce immune function and cause urinary tract and other problems.

Oral zinc may also interfere with medicines you're taking. These include antibiotics and a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Vitamin C. This is an antioxidant. Antioxidants may protect cells from the effects of free radicals. Those are produced when your body breaks down food or when your body is exposed to things in the environment like tobacco smoke and radiation.

Vitamin C is important for bones, connective tissue and skin. It promotes healing and helps the body absorb iron.

Vitamin C comes from produce. Sources include: citrus, red and green peppers, tomatoes, broccoli and greens. Some foods, like juice and cereal, are fortified with vitamin C. It also comes in supplement form.

Research has shown that Vitamin C does not prevent colds for most people. Regarding cold symptoms, the studies show that for most people, it only slightly reduces the length and severity of colds. And to get that benefit, people have to take it regularly - not just when they have a cold.

In general, vitamin C is considered safe except in high doses. High doses of vitamin C can cause nausea, diarrhea and cramps. There may also be medication interactions and people with certain conditions should not take it as a supplement.

So what should you do if you come down with a cold?
Tell all your medical providers about the alternative or complementary medicines you are taking. Ask them about any you want to try.

If your mother or grandmother told you to drink fluids when you get a cold, they were right. Make sure you get an adequate amount!

Don't forget your flu shot, either. It won't protect against a cold, but it is the best protection against the flu.

Other suggestions for getting through a cold:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Gargle with warm salt water. Or use ice chips, throat sprays or lozenges for a sore throat. Children older than 5 may be given lozenges, but only under adult supervision.
  • Clear a stuffy nose with saline nasal spray or a decongestant. Use decongestants if your doctor recommends them. Be sure to follow the package instructions. Limit using nasal spray decongestants to three days.
  • Use petroleum jelly on a raw nose.
  • Avoid smoking and exposure to smoke.
  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer.

Also make sure to take aspirin or acetaminophen for a headache or fever. But don't give aspirin to a child. It has been linked to a serious illness called Reye's syndrome. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that non-prescription cold medicines not be given to children under age 2 because serious and potentially life-threatening side effects can occur. In fact, packaging labels for these medications advise not to give them to children under age 4. The FDA also recommends being very careful in giving a child more than one cold medicine at a time, since many of them contain multiple drugs. It is best to talk to your doctor before giving a child of any age cough and cold medicines.

Do not take antibiotics for a cold, because viruses cause colds - and antibiotics do not kill viruses.

And remember, a healthy, well-balanced diet is the best source of vitamins and minerals.

By Emily Gurnon, Contributing Writer
Created on 12/21/1999
Updated on 01/14/2013
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Common cold: Treatment.
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The flu, the common cold and complementary health practices.
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Echinacea.
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. What the science says about natural products for the flu and colds.
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