There’s a good chance you came to this page because you’re feeling miserable and want a quick fix. First, the bad news: There is no cure for the common cold, and most popular remedies have little to no effect on symptoms. The good news is that we can help keep you from spending time and money on ineffective remedies for the common cold.
Over-the-counter cough & cold medicines
These products are not only useless, but quite dangerous for children. (See our page on cough & cold medicines for more information.)
Many people swear by Echinacea when it comes to beating colds and staying healthy. Yet in large studies of actual humans, it’s been shown to be no better than a placebo. Scientists continue to study it because in the lab it appears to reduce inflammation. Yet improving immunity in humans in the real world is far more complicated than doing it in a Petri dish, and so far Echinacea has shown little verifiable real-world success. (Szabo, 2-16-2011)
Zinc is the all-natural remedy that so far has shown the most promise. Studies have found that zinc lozenges or syrup started within 24 hours after the first emergence of symptoms may reduce the duration of colds by one day. However, there’s debate among scientists about whether this is really due to zinc or just a fanciful placebo effect.
“One of the big challenges with (zinc) research is making a placebo that people actually believe in,” says pediatrician Rachel Vreeman. “The bad taste of zinc, and the fact that it often makes people feel nauseous, are common, and tend to make it clear who is getting the zinc and who is getting the placebo.” (Szabo, 2-10-2011)
There’s little evidence that herbal teas have active ingredients that will actually help you fight a cold. However, sipping a hot beverage such as tea can help alleviate many cold symptoms, so in that regard, it certainly won’t hurt. The process of making and sipping the tea can also have a psychological benefit that leads to you getting over a cold a little sooner.
Why people think that cold treatments work
If so many of these remedies do so little to work, how come so many people continue to use them? First of all there’s the placebo effect. Taking a medicine – any medicine, even a sugar pill – makes people feel they are being proactive and can actually cause their brain to kick up its defenses in fighting the infection, possibly leading to very real improvement. But this improvement has nothing to do with the medicine; it’s all about the power of their mind.
The second has everything to do with timing. Since colds build to a peak of symptoms (at which point people usually seek medicine), and go away on their own in about a week, improving a little each day, it’s easy for people to attribute their improvement to medicine when it was really just the passage of time that made them better.