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Science-Based Remedies for Colds & Flu

Last Updated on: May 4, 2022

sick woman sitting up in bed blowing her nose

With cold and flu season upon us, you may be wondering if any of the over-the-counter remedies are worth buying or if there are better solutions to ease the discomfort that comes with these viruses. Let’s take a look at some science-based remedies for colds and flu.

At one time or another, most people have experienced the stuffy nose, scratchy throat, and coughing that come with a cold or the body aches, fatigue, and fever that come with the flu. In fact, in the U.S., an estimated 1 billion colds are contracted every year. (1) The flu, which can be much more severe than a cold, affects up to 20% of the U.S. population each year with an estimated 31 million outpatient visits and 200,000 hospitalizations. In the 2017 to 2018 season, more than 80,000 people died from the flu. Because these illnesses are so prevalent, it’s no wonder that so many treatment options line store and pharmacy shelves, but there’s a lot you can do apart from these to find relief. (2)

sick woman in bed with a sore throat
People contract an estimated 1 billion colds per year in the U.S.

Colds

Causes and Transmission

Over 200 different viruses cause the common cold, and more are discovered periodically. (1) Colds can spread through the air, personal contact, or contact with infected stool or respiratory secretions. You can catch a cold, for example, when you shake hands with someone who has a cold or touch a surface that has the cold virus on it and then touch your eyes, mouth, or nose. You’re more likely to catch a cold in the winter and spring, but you can become infected anytime. (3)

Symptoms

Common cold symptoms include (4):

  • Body aches
  • Coughing
  • Fever (relatively rare)
  • Headaches
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Sore or scratchy throat
  • Watery eyes

See your doctor if your cold lasts longer than 10 days, your symptoms become more severe, you become short of breath, or any chronic health conditions you may have worsen with the onset of the cold. (4)

Science-Based Remedies

Curing the common cold has been likened to trying to create one master key to open hundreds of locks. In other words, it’s very difficult to find one medication or vaccine that will be effective against the 200+ viruses that cause colds. However, science supports the following home remedies for easing your symptoms (5, 6, 7, 8, 9):

  1. Hydrate. Fluids help loosen congestion, so increase your intake of liquids like water, clear soups and broths, warm tea, and juice. Avoid liquids that will dehydrate you, like caffeinated drinks and salty soups. Dehydration will cause mucus to thicken, increasing your discomfort. Avoid dairy products, as they can also cause mucus to thicken.
  2. Try a salt-water gargle. In an 8 ounce glass of water, dissolve ½ teaspoon of salt. Gargling this solution can relieve your sore throat. However, this remedy is not for children under 6, as they are unable to gargle properly.
  3. Stir raw honey into hot water or tea. Known to help relieve coughs, raw honey also has antimicrobial properties. Be aware that children under 1 year of age should never be given honey because of the risk of infant botulism.
  4. Use an air humidifier. This may help loosen congestion.
  5. Try a zinc supplement. Studies show that zinc prevents the cold virus from replicating in your body and therefore shortens the duration of your cold symptoms. Always follow the dosing directions on products containing zinc. Too much can upset your stomach. Zinc in nasal sprays can cause a temporary loss of smell.
  6. Try an echinacea supplement or echinacea tea. Studies have shown that echinacea may support immune health.
  7. Increase your intake of garlic. Garlic has antiviral properties, and research shows that people have fewer colds when eating garlic or taking garlic supplements regularly.
  8. Inhale menthol through steam or a rub. Menthol has antibacterial properties and can help relieve pain and congested airways.
  9. Take a Vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D has been shown to reduce the frequency of colds.
  10. Rub oregano oil on your chest. Oregano contains a substance called thymol, which can relieve headaches and coughs.
  11. Take probiotic capsules or eat probiotics in certain foods. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that support gut health and may help prevent colds. You can find probiotics in such foods as yogurt, sauerkraut, and miso.
  12. Try North American ginseng. Research shows that North American ginseng reduces the duration of cold and flu symptoms in adults. You can consume North American ginseng raw, in a capsule, or as a tea.
  13. Eat berries. Berries have antiviral properties and may help fight viruses. Elderberries in particular can reduce flu symptoms, along with cranberry beverages. Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries contain vitamin C, which supports the immune system. Fruit and avocados also contain high levels of Vitamin C.
  14. Sleep well and reduce stress. Studies show that stress and poor sleep increase your chances of contracting a cold because they inhibit the response of your immune system. This makes you more susceptible to viruses and other germs.
  15. Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain relief. Ask your pediatrician when administering either of these to young children.
  16. Wash or sanitize your hands vigorously and often.
woman blowing her nose with a tissue
The flu affects as much as 20% of the U.S. population annually.

Flu

Causes and Transmission

Four types of viruses cause influenza, or the flu; these are called influenza A, B, C, and D. The winter-season flu is mostly influenza A but sometimes B. Primarily, it’s influenza A that causes flu epidemics. Influenza C causes mild respiratory distress, but it does not cause epidemics; modern vaccines do not work against this type. Influenza D affects cattle but not humans. (10)

You can contract the flu through infected droplets that become airborne when someone with the flu sneezes or coughs. Also, you can pick up flu viruses from surfaces and transfer them to your eyes, nose, or mouth. People who have the flu are most contagious about three days after the onset of symptoms. (2, 11)

Symptoms

Flu symptoms look a lot like cold symptoms but with the addition of gastrointestinal distress. Another difference is that flu symptoms come on suddenly while colds take hold gradually. Flu symptoms include (11):

  • Body aches
  • Chills
  • Coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Fever (not everyone will get a fever)
  • Headaches
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (happens more often in children than in adults)

Most relatively healthy people can tolerate flu symptoms without consulting a doctor; however, the following populations are at a higher risk for complications from the flu, including (2):

  • Children under 5
  • Adults over 65
  • Women who are pregnant or who have just given birth
  • People with compromised immune systems or chronic illnesses
  • Those who are overweight

Complications of the flu can be moderate to severe. Moderate complications include ear infections and sinus infections. Much more concerning are such severe complications as inflammation of the heart or brain, pneumonia, bronchitis, sepsis, and multi-organ failure. (12, 13)

If you have the flu, it’s best to stay home and get as much rest as possible while taking in as much fluid as you can. However, be sure to see your doctor if you experience chest pain or trouble breathing, a fever over 100°F, strange-colored mucus or blood in your mucus, chills, severe cough, or sweating. (13)

Science-Based Remedies

All of the remedies listed above for alleviating a cold can also be employed to help alleviate the flu, but there are a few additional measures you can take to fight the flu (13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19):

  1. Ask your doctor about antiviral drugs. These are different from antibiotics, which do not work on viruses. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved many antiviral drugs, which are only available by prescription, for treating the flu. Some of these treat both influenza A and B while others treat only A. Your doctor will choose the best one for you or your loved ones based on age, preexisting conditions, and method of administration. There are no antiviral drugs to treat influenza C. Antiviral drugs work best when you start them soon after the onset of the flu. When started within two days, antiviral drugs can help reduce flu duration by about a day as well as reducing the risk of complications and death.
  2. Disinfect your home to prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses, which can remain infectious for hours, on hard surfaces in particular. One way to do this is to use hypochlorous acid (HOCl). This powerful but safe disinfectant kills viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other pathogens. Hypochlorous acid is FDA approved and is used around the world to disinfect hospitals and restaurants, and is safe for use around children and pets. Your white blood cells actually make HOCl to destroy disease-causing pathogens.
woman sick in bed
Infection with influenza viruses can lead to pneumonia, bronchitis, and sepsis.

Take Care of Yourself

Usually, colds are minor even though you feel awful. The flu can be much more severe and require a doctor’s care. In the meantime, try some of these science-based remedies for colds and flu. Quality rest and fluids are crucial to healing. If you have any chronic conditions that are worsened by a cold or the flu, or if in general you’re not better in a few days, be sure to seek medical care.

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