Home Remedies to Beat Any Cold or Flu
Fall and winter months can mean cold and flu time. If you've already been struck by one of these illnesses, you may have gone to a doctor and received the usual, sensible advice: Expect to have symptoms for 7 to 10 days, get lots of rest, drink plenty of water and treat the symptoms. Keep in mind, antibiotics do not help with cold or flu, and can cause side effects.
But, now you’re stuck at home, sniffling and feeling crummy. You have a runny or stuffy nose, maybe a sore throat, you’re sneezing and coughing. You undoubtedly have that resting and water-drinking down to a science, so let’s talk about treating the symptoms.
Putting the classic cold home remedies to the test
We tried a handful of time-tested cold and flu home remedies and asked Houston Methodist primary care physician Dr. Natalie Dryden to assess each one.
First we tried a hot toddy, a mixture of warm water, honey and whiskey or rum in small but roughly equal amounts, topped with a bit of lemon juice.
“Warm beverages can soothe a sore throat and many patients find them useful,” Dr. Dryden says. “Adding alcohol in small amounts is not likely harmful, but more than one alcoholic drink a day can suppress the immune system.”
Then we heated up some chicken soup.
“It may help, as it can act as a mild anti-inflammatory and helps temporarily speed the movement of mucus,” Dr. Dryden explains. Next, it was time for a hot, steamy shower. Dr. Dryden says, “The steam may help moisturize mucous membranes and temporarily ease congestion.”
Nasal saline rinses can help ease cold symptoms like congestion
We also tried a nasal irrigation system using a Neti pot and saline. Dr. Dryden says these are typically safe to use and effective in clearing congestion and stuffiness.
“Some people find the saline to be a nasal irritant, so it may not be for everyone,” she cautions.
While Neti pots can be effective for treating cold and flu symptoms, make sure to fill them with distilled or boiled water to prevent infections.
Gargling with salt water helped our throat discomfort temporarily, and we also tried a warm compress for sinus congestion. Dr. Dryden stresses that the success of any one of these strategies will depend on the person. “If it doesn’t help,” she says, “at least it won’t hurt.”
Over-the-counter options that can help fight the variety of cold symptoms
We also paid a visit to the pharmacy to take a look at some over-the-counter cold and flu remedies. The sheer number of products available made our head spin.
First question: antihistamine or decongestant?
“Antihistamines can reduce runny nose and sneezing, but used alone these tend to have more side effects than benefits, such as sleepiness and dry mouth,” Dr. Dryden says.
Medication combining an antihistamine with a decongestant (pseudoephedrine) can be effective in reducing these symptoms. This may not be for everyone, though, since it can raise blood pressure. Dr. Dryden says that individuals with hypertension should avoid this combination. And be sure to check the active ingredients, since many multi-symptom cold medications contain a different type of decongestant instead, phenylephrine — which the FDA has said isn't effective at relieving congestion.
Dr. Dryden says expectorants and cough suppressants both have shown medium benefit, and medicated nasal sprays also have been shown to help and can be a substitute for pseudoephedrine. Be warned, however, that nasal decongestant sprays shouldn't be taken for more than three days, or else you run the risk of suffering from rebound congestion. Nasal steroid sprays can also help relieve runny nose, sneezing and congestion, but can take a day or two to work.
What to avoid when dealing with a cold: zinc supplements
In addition, Dr. Dryden cites studies showing that vitamins C, D and E have no effect on colds.
Zinc has been controversial. While zinc has shown a reduction of symptoms in some cases, it did have some serious side effects. So serious, in fact, that the FDA has issued warnings about zinc products and Dr. Dryden does not recommend their use.
If you haven’t been infected by cold or flu this season, congratulations. Keep washing your hands, eating healthy and laying off the alcohol. And while you’re at it, get your flu shot and updated COVID vaccine, too. Flu season is in full swing, but it's not too late to get vaccinated. And the CDC states they're expecting a moderate COVID-19 wave this winter.