The signs don’t lie: scratchy throat, nasal congestion, watery eyes. It is, indeed, the start of another cold. If your first thought is to reach for the Airborne, that over-the-counter herbal cold remedy invented by a teacher, think again. It probably won’t make a dent.
But other herbal and natural approaches do prevent colds—and if you do end up catching a cold, natural treatments can spare you considerable misery.
Colds are humanity’s most prevalent illness. Caused by more than 200 viruses, each one technically causes a “different” cold. But because all colds produce similar symptoms, the malady is considered a single illness.
Most colds start with a scratchy throat, and progress through nasal congestion, watery eyes and runny nose to a dry, hacking cough that may become bronchitis. Childhood colds may cause fever, but adult colds rarely do.
Medically, colds are minor and clear up by themselves in a week or so. But this minor illness causes major misery and is quite costly. Americans suffer 500 million colds annually and spend $17 billion a year treating them. Most of that money is wasted on over-the-counter cold formulas that suppress symptoms without spurring healing. Herbal and natural approaches are preferable because they provide real protection and/or speed healing.
Break the Chain of Cold Transmission
Prevention: Boost Immunity
When researchers infect people’s noses with a live virus, some test subjects—those with the most robust immune systems—don’t catch the cold. These three immune-boosting herbs have shown value in cold prevention:
• Echinacea (Echinacea spp.). Studies from the 1990s showed scant preventive value. But in 2007, University of Connecticut scientists analyzed 14 studies and found that echinacea reduced cold risk by 58 percent. Echinacea’s preventive value remains controversial, but if anyone close to you catches a cold, there’s no harm in taking it. Recommended dose: 20 drops of tincture three times a day, or follow package directions.
• Ginseng. (Panax quinquefolius, P. ginseng). Canadian researchers gave 279 adults a daily placebo or ginseng (400 mg a day). Four months later, the ginseng group developed significantly fewer colds. University of Connecticut researchers repeated this study and came to the same conclusion, calling ginseng “a safe, natural means for preventing acute respiratory illness.” Recommended dose: 400 mg a day.
• Green tea (Camellia sinensis). University of Florida researchers gave healthy adults either a placebo or green tea capsules twice a day. Three months later, the tea group reported significantly fewer colds.
No other herbs have been shown to prevent colds. However, several boost immune function against viruses, so it’s a good bet they help prevent colds.
• Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera). For centuries, Indians have used this immune-enhancing Ayurvedic herb to prevent illness. Recommended dose: 1 to 6 grams daily (2 to 12 teaspoons) in capsules or tea. In tincture or liquid extract, use 2 to 4 ml three times daily. Or follow package directions.
• Eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus). Also known as Siberian ginseng, this herb is unrelated to ginseng but has similar effects, including immune-boosting antiviral action. A German study shows that it produces a “drastic increase” in immune responses, notably, more T-cells and natural killer cells. Recommended dose: 400 mg daily of standardized extract containing 0.3 percent eleutheroside E. Or follow package directions.
• Maitake mushroom (Grifola frondosa). Maitake contains beta-glucan that activates germ-devouring T-cells, natural killer cells and macrophages. Recommended dose: 3 to 7 grams a day. Or use this delicious mushroom in cooking.
• Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum). Like maitake, reishi contains beta-glucan, and revs up the immune system against various viruses, notably herpes. Recommended dose: 1.5 to 9 grams daily of dried mushroom; 1 to 1.5 grams a day of powder; or 1 ml a day of tincture. Reishi is nasty-tasting and is not used as a food.
• Shiitake mushroom (Lentinula edodes). These tasty Asian mushrooms are immune-boosters, notably against the viruses that cause hepatitis B and genital warts. Recommended dose: 6 to 16 grams a day of dried mushrooms or 4 ounces fresh. Or use in cooking.
• Vitamin C. Since 1970, when the late Nobel laureate Linus Pauling published Vitamin C and the Common Cold, this nutrient has ranked among the nation’s most popular—and controversial—cold remedies. Finnish researchers analyzed 30 trials, and found no preventive benefit—except in those under substantial physical stress (soldiers, marathon runners). However, this analysis considered studies using about 200 mg a day—too little, according to some reports, to show benefit. Most studies showing cold prevention use 2,000 mg a day or more. The jury is still out. But if those around you have colds, there’s no harm in taking vitamin C. Recommended dose: 2,000 mg a day in divided doses.
• Forget Airborne. This bestselling supplement contains some echinacea, but not enough to help. Otherwise, it’s simply a multivitamin. Last August, as part of a false-advertising settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, Airborne’s maker agreed to stop claiming that it prevents or treats colds.
More Cold-Fighting Strategies
• Exercise boosts immune function. University of Washington researchers enrolled 115 women in weekly 45-minute stretching sessions or 45 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week. After 12 months, the exercisers contracted significantly fewer colds than the stretchers did.
• Manage stress. Ever catch a cold studying for finals? Blame stress. Carnegie Mellon researchers gauged stress levels in 400 volunteers, then subjected their noses to live cold viruses. As the volunteers’ stress increased, so did their likelihood of catching the cold. Stress impairs immune function. Effective ways to reduce it include meditation, music, yoga and other moderate exercise.
• Socialize. Colds spread from person to person, so you’d think social butterflies would catch the most colds. Actually, as social connections increase, risk of colds decreases. That’s what the Carnegie Mellon group discovered in a study of 334 volunteers who completed surveys of social ties before exposure to cold virus. Social connections boost immune function. Apparently, the benefit gained from socializing more than compensates for the risk of spending time around cold sufferers.
• Make love. Researchers at Wilkes-Barre University in Pennsylvania surveyed 112 college students about their sexual frequency, then analyzed their saliva for immunoglobulin A (IgA), one of the body’s first defenses against colds. Those who reported sex once or twice a week had the highest IgA levels.
Treating Colds Herbally
If all your prevention measures fail—and they sometimes do—you still can take steps to lessen the cold’s impact.
• Echinacea. Some studies show no treatment benefit, but most support the use of echinacea. University of Wisconsin researchers analyzed eight studies of echinacea for treating colds. Every one showed that compared with untreated cold sufferers, those taking the herb had shorter, less severe colds. The University of Connecticut analysis of 14 studies, mentioned earlier, showed that in addition to preventing colds, echinacea reduces cold duration by 1.4 days.
• Ginseng. The University of Connecticut study showed that ginseng cut severity of cold symptoms in half.
• Green tea. In the University of Florida study, mentioned earlier, green tea significantly reduced the duration of colds.
• Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata). This traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine has recently become a popular cold treatment. At the University of Chile in Santiago, researchers gave 158 adults coming down with colds either a placebo or andrographis (1,200 mg a day). The andrographis group reported faster relief of all symptoms, with no side effects. British researchers analyzed seven studies of andrographis for colds. They found significant benefit. Recommended dose: 400 mg three times a day.
• South African geranium (Pelargonium sidoides). Ukrainian scientists gave 103 adult cold sufferers a placebo or pelargonium (30 drops three times a day). After 10 days, 31 percent of the placebo group was cured. In the pelargonium group, the figure was 79 percent. This herb also treats the bronchitis that may develop at the tail end of a cold. Recommended dose: 30 drops three times a day.
• Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). For cold-related sore throat, these herbs provide remarkable relief. University of Wisconsin researchers gave 60 sore throat sufferers a placebo or Throat Coat, a tea (from Traditional Medicinals) containing slippery elm bark and licorice root. The tea provided significantly greater relief.
• Ashwaganda, eleuthero, maitake, reishi and shiitake. While no studies have investigated these herbs as cold treatments, their immune-enhancing effects against viral infections suggest they may help.
Other Natural Treatments
• Hot drinks. Grandma was right when she said to drink hot liquids. Cold viruses reproduce best at temperatures below normal body temperature. Any hot drink warms the throat, impairing viral replication. Hot liquids also help soothe a sore throat and suppress cough.
• Chicken—or vegetable—soup. For centuries, chicken soup has been used to treat colds. Florida researchers showed that it does, indeed, relieve nasal congestion better than plain hot water. In a laboratory study, University of Nebraska researchers showed that chicken soup significantly reduced throat-cell inflammation. However, the Nebraska group’s soup worked even before the chicken was added, when it was simply onion- and garlic-rich vegetable soup. Many studies have shown that vegetables, notably onions, have anti-inflammatory action.
• Take vitamin C. The analysis, mentioned earlier, showing that vitamin C provides no preventive benefit for the general population also showed that it offers consistent, modest benefit as a cold treatment—14 percent shorter colds in children, and 8 percent in adults. Again, this analysis was based on studies using 200 mg a day. Better results have been observed in studies using larger doses, for example a University of Helsinki report showing that 2,000 mg a day reduces cold duration 26 percent.
• Zinc lozenges. A dozen studies have tested zinc lozenges against colds. Most have shown that the mineral relieves symptoms and significantly shortens colds.
• Honey. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that cold and cough remedies should not be given to children younger than 2. What’s a parent with suffering kids to do? If your child is older than 1 year, give a teaspoon of honey. Penn State researchers tested honey against the standard over-the-counter cough suppressant dextromethorphan in 105 children. Parents said honey worked better. (Do not give honey to infants younger than 1 year.)
San Francisco health writer Michael Castleman is the author of 11 consumer health books. Visit mcastleman.com.