Health & Wellness

The truth about 6 common cold remedies

Walk into any drugstore and you'll see shelves lined with products claiming to boost your immune system and cure your cold and flu. But do they work?

Nutritionist and TODAY contributor Joy Bauer has the scoop (and science!) on some common cold remedies.

1. Vitamin C

Studies have gone back and forth for years, and just when we thought the case was closed — a comprehensive scientific review in 2004 determined that daily doses of 200 mg (or more) failed to reduce the incidence, duration or severity of the common cold — a contradictory new study surfaced.

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Yes, sleep does help prevent colds

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The latest report, a 2006 Japanese study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition — showed the risk of contracting three or more colds in the five-year period was decreased by 66 percent by the daily intake of the 500 mg vitamin C supplement. This study deserves special mention because it was much longer (five years) than the trials reported in previous studies and covered many cold seasons in which subjects were probably exposed repeatedly to many cold viruses.

Bottom line: Eat lots of vitamin C-rich foods on a daily basis PLUS consider taking 200 - 500 mg per day in supplement form during cold season. See if it makes a difference to you, the placebo effect alone may be powerful.

RELATED: Home flu remedies that really work (and some that don't)

Here are some vitamin-C rich foods:

  • Papaya (1 papaya = 190 mg)
  • Bell pepper, red or yellow (1 pepper = 280 mg)
  • Bell pepper, green (1 pepper = 120 mg)
  • Grapefruit (1 grapefruit = 90 mg)
  • Orange (1 orange = 70 mg)
  • Strawberries (1 cup strawberries = 90 mg)
  • Broccoli (1 cup raw broccoli = 80 mg)

2. Airborne

The package claims it should be used by people who frequent crowded, germ-filled environments — office buildings, schools, restaurants, health clubs, theaters and of course airplanes — basically all of us! Its contents provide a mixture of vitamins, minerals and herbs, with large amounts of vitamin C and straight vitamin A.

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How to stay sane when your child is sick

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Bottom line: There do not seem to be ANY product-specific credible studies to support Airborne’s effectiveness. If it works at all, it’s most likely due to the large amount of vitamin C — which you can certainly buy for a lot less money, in plain pill form. And keep in mind that vitamin C does not work instantaneously to reduce your risk of catching a cold. If you pop a pill when you board a plane, don’t expect your body to exhibit miraculous germ repelling ability.

RELATED: The tricks doctors and nurses use to avoid catching the flu and colds

Most importantly, the amount and type of Vitamin A in this product could be downright dangerous. Each daily dose provides 100 percent of the daily value for straight vitamin A, the type most health experts now steer people AWAY from. Too much can potentially cause adverse health risks, including brittle bones and liver damage. The package directions says to take every three to four hours, up to three times a day, which is clearly a health risk when you tally vitamin A totals.

3. Echinacea

Echinacea is one of the most widely used herbal supplements — it’s thought to prevent and help symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections, including colds and the flu. But evidence on its effectiveness is a bit shaky.

According to a 2006 review by the Cochrane Collaboration, this herb was no better than a placebo at preventing colds. Sixteen studies were evaluated and stretched from 1992 – 2005. However, researchers did find that if the Echinacea supplement is prepared based on the parts of Echinacea-purpurea, then it may be somewhat effective at treating colds early on in adults. Still, the results are not fully consistent.

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Bottom line: Most studies show it doesn’t help, BUT if you’d like to give it a shot begin taking at the onset of a cold or respiratory infection (it may lessen the severity and duration of your symptoms). JUST make sure your brand provides the specific type labeled “purpurea.” Stay tuned for more research.

4. Cold-Eeze

These lozenges contains the mineral, zinc. Two studies have tested for effectiveness and have come up with completely different results — making my advice complicated.

The first study in 1996, used about 100 sick adults and had them regularly take either zinc lozenges OR placebo lozenges every two hours for the duration of their sickness. There was significant difference showing that the zinc lozenges helped cut the duration of colds by about 43 percent in some people.

RELATED: Symptom tracker: Cold, flu — or something else?

However, the second study conducted two years later (using about 250 students), showed NO significant difference at all (in either the length of the sickness or symptoms).

Bottom line: These lozenges may be worth a try, but don’t expect them to automatically help your cold or symptoms. Also, be aware that some people experience bad taste and nausea from the zinc.

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5. Oscillococcinum

It’s a homeopathic remedy created by a French physician, Joseph Roy in the early 1900s. It consists of very dilute amounts of duck liver and heart — a typical dilution ratio of 1:100 in water.

Two independent authors each reviewed the same seven controlled studies which looked at oscillococcinum for the prevention and treatment of the flu. Although there is no evidence that it can prevent the common cold or flu, this homeopathic supplement reduced the average bout of flu-like symptoms by about seven hours (not much — but something).

Bottom line: It may be worth a shot, research looks promising and it doesn’t seem to contain anything that will harm you. For people who would like to try oscillococcinum — take at the first onset of symptoms.

6. Chicken soup

Hot fluids in general help keep nasal passages moist, thin out your mucus, prevent dehydration and sooth a sore throat. But most interesting is the supportive evidence that was shown in a scientific study, out of University of Nebraska, a few years back. They concluded that chicken soup with a variety of veggies may contain substances that function as an anti-inflammatory mechanism and potentially ease the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections, including congestion, stuffy nose, cough, and sore throat.

Bottom line: Consume plenty of chicken soup with veggies when you’re hit with a bad cold.

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