Health & Wellness

The truth about six 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.

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 200mg (or more) failed to reduce the incidence, duration or severity of the common cold — a contradictory new study surfaced.

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% 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 - 500mg per day in supplemental form during cold season. See if it makes a difference to you...the placebo effect alone may be powerful.

Vitamin C Rich Foods:

  • Papaya (1 papaya = 190 mg)
  • Bell pepper, red or yellow (1 pepper = 280mg)
  • 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)  


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

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.

Most importantly, the amount and type of Vitamin A in this product could be downright dangerous.  Each daily dose provides 100% of the Daily Value for straight Vitamin A – the type most health experts now steer people AWAY from. Too much can cause potential adverse health risks, including brittle bones and liver damage. The package directions say, “take every 3-4 hours, up to three times a day”… clearly a health risk when you tally Vitamin A totals.


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.

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.


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% in some people.

However, the second study conducted two years later (using about 250 students grades 1 -12th), 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.


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 7 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: 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.

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.

For more information on healthy eating, visit TODAY nutritionist Joy Bauer’s Web site at

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