By Regina Boyle Wheeler Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH for everydayhealth.com
Chicken soup and hot tea are effective cold remedies, but can anything actually reduce the length of time cold symptoms linger? Healthy living before the first sniffle strikes is perhaps your best weapon.
Your head throbs, your nose runs, and you’re coughing. While the common cold isn’t usually serious, it’s nothing to sneeze at either. Cold symptoms can make the average adult miserable for about a week. In the elderly and children, a cold can hang on even longer.
So are there any cold remedies that can shorten cold duration? The answer is yes, according to Donald W. Novey, MD, a family and integrative medicine specialist in Poulsbo, Wash., but they may not be what you think.
While some dietary supplements may be able to shorten cold duration, Dr. Novey says supplements aren’t your best line of defense. “The best weapon we have against the common cold is our own immune system,” he explains.
Good nutrition, adequate sleep and exercise, and low levels of stress are what make our immune system work its best. “A failure on any one of these four points can weaken the immune system and either prolong an existing cold or lead to more frequent ones,” Novey says.
Rev Up Your Immune System to Shorten Cold Duration
In the United States, adults can expect to catch the common cold as many as four times a year, while children get anywhere from 6 to 10 colds. Novey says that generally viruses need to run their course, but we can help that course be as short as possible by taking care of our immune system. Here’s how:
Get your zzz’s. “When someone gets a cold, by far the most effective remedy is rest,” Novey says. “People who are exhausted stay sicker longer, he explains. “The body signals its need for rest by being tired. We have all experienced the fatigue of a common cold and the wish to rest. If only we would listen!”
Work out. “Exercise strengthens the immune system,” Novey says. In fact, a recent study suggests that people who exercise on a regular basis may have fewer and milder colds. Researchers in North Carolina followed just over 1,000 men and women ages 18 to 85 in the fall and winter and recorded how many upper respiratory infections they caught. The participants reported how much aerobic exercise they did and also answered questions about lifestyle, nutrition, and stress. Those who exercised five or more days a week reported 46 percent fewer colds than their sedentary counterparts — those who exercised only one day or less a week — and the number of days they slogged through cold symptoms was 41 percent lower. The researchers said one explanation could be that working out causes immune cells to attack viruses at a faster rate.
Eat right. “When one is well, a balanced diet with adequate protein promotes well-being and reduces the chance for catching a cold,” Novey says. If you do get a cold, listen to what your stomach is telling you. “The body dictates what it wants: soup, liquids — gentle foods,” he notes, adding that ginger tea and the old standby, chicken soup, are cold remedies that provide temporary relief.
De-stress. Novey says the kind of stress that “wears you down” also lowers your resistance to illnesses such as the common cold and may make one hang on longer. Finding a healthy way to cope with chronic stress can help fight off all kinds of illnesses. Relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation may be worth a try.
Can Supplements Shorten Cold Duration?
So you’ve taken care of yourself, but still you’ve caught a bug. Maybe you’ve heard that certain supplements can cut short the common cold. But do they really work? The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) says some studies show possible benefits, but there is no conclusive evidence that dietary supplements or other alternative therapies can prevent colds or reduce cold duration.
However, recent research published in the British Journal of Nutrition suggests that the vitamins found in fruits and vegetables might help prevent and shorten the common cold. In the study, German researchers used a fruit and vegetable supplement that contained vitamins C, E, beta carotene, and folate. Two hundred and sixty-three of the participants (mainly women nurses whose average age was 39) took four capsules of the supplement daily for eight months, while 266 participants took a placebo. The subjects reported the number of days they experienced moderate or severe cold symptoms over six months, with the supplement group reporting an average of 7.6 days with such symptoms and the placebo group reporting 9.5 days.
Here are recent findings about other supplements commonly used as cold remedies:
Vitamin C. According to the NCCAM, a recent review of 30 trials involving more than 11,000 people found that taking vitamin C regularly (at least 0.2 grams a day) did not lower the chance of catching a cold, but it was shown to possibly reduce the duration and severity of cold symptoms. Talk to your doctor about whether taking vitamin C is right for you.
Zinc. “Probably the best evidence supports the use of zinc lozenges to reduce the intensity of cold symptoms,” Novey says. A recent review found that doses of more than 70 milligrams a day did reduce the duration of colds. But other studies found no benefits. And in 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned against the use of zinc-containing nasal cold remedies after receiving reports of the loss of smell in some people.
Echinacea. Many believe this herb can prevent or treat the common cold. Study results about echninacea have been mixed. Reviews of the research show there could be some benefits in adults, but three NCCAM-funded trials found no benefit at all.
Probiotics. Although there have been some studies that suggest so-called “good bacteria” found in many yogurts can help prevent or fight a cold, Novey believes they don’t work.
While it may be nearly impossible to avoid all colds, Novey says hand-washing, especially before eating, is very powerful tool: “Try it — it really works.”