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Natural ways to ease a cold

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Woman holding a drink cup on the couch for a story on natural ways to ease a cold

Catching a cold can happen any time of year and make you feel lousy. Here are the most reliable home remedies for feeling better. 

Jennifer Howze

By Jennifer Howze

There’s good reason for the “common” in the phrase “the common cold”: More than 200 different viruses are known to cause colds. And the rhinovirus, which causes up to 40% of them, has at least 100 specific versions. That makes a cold really hard to avoid, and since it’s caused by a virus, it can’t be knocked out with antibiotics.

But you do have options for treating the symptoms: sneezing, runny nose, sore throat, coughs, headaches and a general feeling of unwellness. And none of these natural fixes requires a trip to the pharmacist.

Ease cold symptoms naturally

Rest up. Now’s the time for a duvet day: Reducing stress on your body gives your immune system a chance to fight off your illness, says Ginger Hultin, a registered dietitian and author of How to Eat to Beat Disease Cookbook.

“As long as the natural immune system is supported through rest and avoiding nutrient deficiencies, cold symptoms should clear up when the body has tackled the virus.”

But don’t just lie in bed. Take it easy, yes, but an entire day in a horizontal position might make sinus symptoms worse, says James Cherry, MD. He’s a distinguished professor of pediatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

“There’s evidence that if you’re lying down, you’re more likely to develop sinusitis,” he says. Moving around also gets your circulation going, and if you’re pumping more blood, your system can open nasal passages and clear out secondary bacterial invaders more quickly.

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Humidify the house. Keep the air moist with humidifiers, vaporizers or even plain old steam from a bowl of hot water. Also, a shower helps ease a sore throat and coughing by keeping your sinus passages and throat moist. Make sure your humidifier is clean — you don’t need to spread more germs around your environment. You can also invest in a steam inhaler.

Make yourself a warm drink. Think of drinking warm liquids (clear soup, tea, warm apple juice — your choice) as the internal equivalent of that warm shower or humidifier. They may loosen some of the secretions so you’ll clear chest congestion more easily, says Albert Rizzo, MD, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association.

Researchers have found that hot drinks not only help some cold symptoms, such as sore throat and tiredness, but they also just make you feel better in general. Subjects in one study didn’t literally breathe more easily through their noses after a hot drink, but they thought they did. And that’s a win.

While you’re at it, stir in some honey. In one study, honey was as helpful in reducing coughing as some over-the-counter cough suppressant medicines. (Don’t give honey to children under age 1, though. In children that young, it may cause infant botulism.)

Use salt water for your congested nose. Flushing your nose with a saline (salt water) spray can help sore, swollen nasal passages feel better, says Dr. Rizzo. Or try a neti pot. That’s a device with a spout that helps you pour saline in one nostril so that it drains out the other, washing away mucus, allergens and bacteria. “Many ear, nose and throat doctors recommend them for people who have recurrent infections,” says Dr. Rizzo.

Don’t try this with plain water, thinking salt water might burn — the opposite is actually true. Plain water can increase irritation, but saline solutions pass gently through delicate nasal tissues. (Make sure your neti pot and any other items that will touch the inside of your nose are kept clean.)

Salt water also helps with a sore throat. It reduces the swelling and inflammation that cause a sore throat. The Mayo Clinic recommends using 4 to 8 ounces of warm water with ¼ to ½ teaspoon of salt stirred in until it’s dissolved. Don’t swallow. Gargle, then spit.

Natural ways to prevent a cold — or shorten the one you have

There aren’t many definitive studies on the effectiveness of most natural, or alternative, treatments for colds. However, there’s some evidence they may make your cold shorter and more bearable or even help you avoid getting one in the first place. Consider trying one of these remedies.

Echinacea. This herbal product made from the coneflower has long had a reputation for helping put colds to bed. But studies have been complicated by the fact that echinacea comes in tons of different strengths and formulations, such as pills, tinctures and salves. One review of 14 studies, though, suggests that it can help reduce the number of colds you catch. And if you take it early, it can shorten the amount of time your cold sticks around.

Vitamin C. You likely know people who load up on vitamin C every winter to stave off a cold. Research shows that probably won’t prevent you from catching a cold, but regularly taking C does seem to help end one more quickly. You don’t need megadoses, though: Doctors advise taking only 100% of your recommended daily allowance. More can cause diarrhea, bloating, headaches and other ill effects.

Zinc. As soon as your symptoms appear (within the first 24 hours), take zinc and it could knock one day off your cold, some studies show. Opt for zinc lozenges or cough syrups. They may keep cold-causing viruses from sticking to the membranes of your nose and throat. Skip zinc sprays. “Nasal zinc can be irritating and really should not be used,” says Dr. Rizzo. Zinc sprays can also affect your sense of smell.

Probiotics. Regularly taking probiotics lowers your chance of getting a cold, some studies show, and if you do get one, it may be shorter and feel milder. You can get probiotics in foods such as yogurt or take probiotic supplements.

When it’s time to take stronger measures

Take note if your symptoms stick around for longer than the typical 4 to 10 days or seem unusually severe. “Stay in close communication with your doctor if symptoms are more significant,” says Dr. Rizzo. “Because a typical cold could develop into bronchitis or pneumonia.”

For people with certain conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a cold can be more serious and should be monitored or prompt a doctor’s visit. 

Make sure others don’t need these tips

You can’t do anything to cure your own cold once you’ve caught it, but you might be able to save the people around you from sharing your misery. “The important thing is decreasing spread to others, which is more likely in the wintertime,” says Dr. Cherry.

That’s because you’re probably indoors more of the time when it’s cold out and are more likely to touch surfaces that other people touch. If they then rub their nose or mouth, your cold is now their cold.

Be a good citizen: Wash your hands often and cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze. Stay home if you can, and if you do go out, consider wearing a face mask — most of us have them handy these days, and they can protect others from your cold-carrying coughs and sneezes.

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Additional sources
Facts about the common cold: Harvard Medical School. Common Cold (Viral Rhinitis), Johns Hopkins Medicine. The Do’s and Don’ts of Easing Cold Symptoms
Antibiotic use: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Antibiotic Prescribing and Use: Common Cold
Sinusitis: Harvard Medical School. What to Do About Sinusitis.
Effect of hot liquids: Rhinology (2008) The effects of a hot drink on nasal airflow and symptoms of common cold and flu.
Honey and coughs: Mayo Clinic Is it true that honey calms coughs better than cough medicine does?
Neti pot safety: U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Is Rinsing Your Sinuses With Neti Pots Safe?
Prevention of common cold: CMAJ (2014) Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidence
Echinacea: National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health Echinacea
Probiotics: Mayo Clinic News Network. Probiotics May Be Effective in Preventing the Common Cold.
Protection and prevention: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others.