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10 Doctor-Approved Natural Cold Remedies

By Dorothy Foltz-Gray on Everyday Health

Nose plugged up like an olive? Hacking cough keeping you up at night? We asked doctors for the best natural remedies to shake cold and flu symptoms - fast!

Sore throat, congestion, fuzzy head. Cold season is upon us and so are its misery-making symptoms. While prescription drugs may help, your first line of defense can be found in your local supermarket or vitamin store. Here are 10 natural remedies doctors use to treat colds and flu:


1. Zinc

What is it?

This essential mineral boosts the immune system and is linked to a decrease in viral activity. "Zinc is believed to work by inhibiting viral cell reproduction in the mucus membranes of the upper respiratory system," says Fred Pescatore, M.D., an integrative physician, and president of the International and American Associations of Clinical Nutritionists.

"It works for both cold and flu." A landmark 1996 study of 100 adults at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, found that people who sucked 6-8 zinc lozenges a day felt relief from their colds in 4.4 days, compared with 7.6 days for those taking a placebo.

How do I use it?

Take 15-30 milligrams in lozenge form at the first sign of a tickly throat, runny nose, or fatigue, Pescatore says. What about zinc pills?"The lozenge works better because it's at the site of the [viral] action," he says. "Suck on one every couple of hours until you feel better."But stay away from zinc-based nasal sprays, which could damage sensitive olfactory nerves and cause a loss in your sense of smell.



2. Echinacea

What is it?

Derived from the purple coneflower family, this herb is a powerful cold fighter, according to a 2007 University of Connecticut study. In a review of 14 clinical trials involving about 3,000 people, researchers found that echinacea cut the risk of catching a cold by 58% and reduced the cold's stay by almost 1-1/2 days.

Although earlier studies found echinacea to be ineffective, this review focused on more variables, such as the effect of echinacea alone or with other supplements."There are constituents in echinacea that bolster the immune system," says Lynne Shinto, N.D., MPH, a naturopathic physician and associate professor at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

How do I use it?

"Use it for prevention," Shinto says. "Once you have a cold or flu, it doesn't help."Take it for three weeks, then stop for one week; repeat the cycle during cold and flu season, she advises. But echinacea isn't Shinto's preferred cold prevention method: That's vitamin C.



3. Vitamin C

What is it?

Found in many fruits and vegetables (such as oranges, red peppers, and broccoli), vitamin C has long been thought to reduce the risk of illness. A 2007 review by the Cochrane Collaboration, a nonprofit organization that analyzes health care studies, found that vitamin C taken after a cold had started didn't make a difference: The cold lasted as long and was as severe. But if taken both before and during a cold, it shortened the viral illness's duration in adults by 8%.

"Vitamin C is believed to support the immune system by gobbling up free radicals [organic molecules linked to aging and tissue damage] so the immune system can do its job," Pescatore says.

How do I use it?

From November-March (prime cold season), take 500 milligrams of vitamin C six times a day for a total of 3,000 mg daily, Pescatore advises. When you feel a cold coming on, pump up your intake to 500 mg every hour for 24 hours. The powdered drink Emergen-C is Shinto's pick. Each packet has 1,000 mg of vitamin C, plus electrolytes. Drink 2-3 packets daily throughout the cold or flu, she says.



4. Honey

What is it?

Honey, made from flower pollen and enzymes in bee saliva, has antioxidants and antiviral and antibacterial properties - all of which make it a top cold-fighter. Antioxidants in honey - all kinds - may also boost the immune system.

A 2007 Pennsylvania State University study found that in 105 children with upper respiratory infections, those taking honey had a 40% improvement in their coughs and restless sleep compared to untreated children."Honey works especially well on coughs," says Elena Klimenko, M.D., an integrative medicine practitioner in New York City. "And it helps eliminate the secondary bacterial infections that can come with colds and flu."

*don't give honey to infants and very young children; it may have botulism spores and their immune systems aren't strong enough to handle it.

How do I use it?

Add two tablespoons of honey to a cup of warm, boiled water or green tea, Klimenko says. Add a squirt or two of lemon for a boost of vitamin C.



5. Chicken soup

What is it?

It's soup the way your grandmother made it: golden broth, chicken, carrots, and onions."Every culture has its version as a cold and flu remedy," Pescatore says. "It's the combination of broth, chicken, and vegetables that bolsters the immune system."And its effectiveness isn't just an old wives' tale. Both the chicken and vegetables inhibit inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which causes coughs and congestion, according to a 2000 study at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

Also, chicken soup contains an amino acid that acts like the drug acetylcysteine, which is used to treat bronchitis and other lung ailments. Its heat helps too, according to researchers at the Common Cold Center at Cardiff University in Wales. A 2008 study found that in 30 people with a cold or the flu, hot drinks such as tea were far more effective at easing runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore throat, chills, and fatigue than room-temperature beverages.

How do I use it?

That's easy: "Have it whenever you want it until you're feeling better," Pescatore says.



6. Ginger Tea

What is it?

The gnarly root of the ginger plant contains compounds called gingerols that attack pain, inflammation, germs, and viruses. Ginger suppresses inflammatory compounds, according to a 2005 study at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore."The evidence centers on relieving stomach aches and vomiting," Shinto says. "But when you have a cold or flu, you need fluids, and ginger tea is a nice way of getting them without lots of sugar.

How do I use it?

To soothe a sore throat, steep two teaspoons of shredded ginger in a cup of hot water (if you prefer something cool, use a cup of sparkling water), Shinto says. Drink at least 2-3 cups a day.



7. Spicy foods

What is it?

As we all know, spicy food makes your nose run. Garlic, turmeric, hot peppers, and ginger are all potent anti-inflammatories, taming irritation in your nose, throat, and upper respiratory tracts.

For example, capsaicin, the fire in hot chili peppers, inhibits substance P, which revs up inflammation in your body. A small 1994 study at Johns Hopkins University found that capsaicin sprayed in the nostrils of eight people with chronic runny or stuffed noses significantly increased glandular secretions in the nose, thinning mucous. And garlic combats viruses, Klimenko says, by destroying the walls of virus cells before it enters the body.

A 2001 British study found that those who took a supplement containing allicin - a compound found in garlic - for 90 days reduced their risk of a cold by more than half compared to people in the placebo group. And supplement takers who did catch cold recovered faster than those who didn't. Klimenko also recommends turmeric as an anti-inflammatory.

How do I use it?

"Cut a garlic bulb in half and just breathe the fumes," Klimenko says. "You inhale antiviral particles that provide relief."

Klimenko also suggests stirring a teaspoon of turmeric in a glass of warm milk and drinking it in the morning and evening."Cooking diminishes the antiviral effect," she says. As for hot peppers, add some chopped jalapenos to a stir-fry or as a pizza topping - you'll soon feel its effect.



8. Steam

What is it?

Ever drain a pot of pasta and feel your nose drip? Steam is a surefire way to clear a stuffy nose. Although it doesn't kill cold or flu viruses, "steam opens the sinuses and airways so you can breathe better," Klimenko says.

How do I use it?

Hold your head over a bowl or pan of steaming hot water, breathing in through your nose, Klimenko says. Just don't burn yourself! For an added benefit, she suggests adding an unpeeled potato - any kind - before the water comes to a boil. "A property in the potato skin acts as an expectorant, helping you cough up mucous," Klimenko says. You can also set up a humidifier in your bedroom, which may help you sleep better, or fill your bathroom with steam by running a hot shower or bath, she says."Sit in the steam, breathing in for 15 minutes."



9. Eucalyptus oil

What is it?

The oil comes from eucalyptus trees, native to Australia. Its efficacy is thanks to several compounds, one being cineole, that combat viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Ninety-two percent of people with sinusitis — an upper respiratory condition that causes swelling and excess mucous — who took 200 mg of cineole three times a day had significant improvement in their headaches, stuffed noses, and mucous overflow, according to a 2004 German study; only 45% of those taking placebo felt relief.

And a 2009 study by the University of Heidelberg in Germany found that eucalyptus oil reduced viral infection — the source of colds and flu — in a test tube by 96% by deactivating virus particles.

How do I use it?

Fill a bowl or sink with steaming water, add 4-5 drops of eucalyptus oil, and hold your head over it, Shinto says. Make a tent with a towel and inhale the steam for five minutes, adding more hot water if necessary to keep the steam steady. Repeat twice a day. "I don't recommend doing it more than that," Shinto says. "It can be hard on the liver." Some components of the plant's leaves can cause organ damage, so people with liver problems or diseases shouldn't use eucalyptus oil.



10. Oscillococcinum

What is it?

This homeopathic remedy, also known as oscillo, was created in the early 1900s by a French physician and is derived from duck liver and heart. Homeopathic remedies work on the theory that tiny diluted amounts of the offending source of an illness may cure that condition. (Ducks are very susceptible to the flu virus.)

Its effectiveness hasn't been proven, but a 2009 review of seven studies by the Cochrane Collaboration found that Oscillococcinum may shorten a bout of flu by six hours; however, it did nothing to prevent the illness. "There hasn't been a lot of evidence that it works," Shinto says. "But I like homeopathic medicines because they're safe and you're not taking a drug."

How do I use it?

Oscilloccinum comes in sweet pellets that you dissolve under your tongue. Take one every six hours, up to three times a day at the first sign of cold or flu.





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