A cold by definition is a viral infection that can cause a runny nose, sneezing, chills, low grade fever, cough, congestion, body or muscle aches, headache, malaise (extreme fatigue)… and the list can go on. Rhinovirus (rhino-meaning living in the nasal passages and multiplies) causes about 50% of the cases of the common cold, but technically speaking there are about 200 viruses that can cause the same type of symptoms.
There is no doubt that the “common cold” can be debilitating. “It causes a decline in function and productivity at work and may affect other activities such as driving.” (1) And with the cold and flu season in full swing (we are seeing multiple cases every day in our clinic!) we felt that there would be no better time than the present to educate regarding natural cold remedies. These have the potential to save you from making an unnecessary visit to your local family physician or urgent care- something that puts you at an even higher risk of contracting the flu or pneumonia due to being exposed to the mobs of patients awaiting to be seen.
“Suggested remedy for the common cold: A good gulp of whiskey at bedtime—its not very scientific, but it helps” —Alexander Fleming (discovered Penicillin)
Back in Alexander Fleming’s day, this was the “cure” for the common cold. Luckily, science has advanced since the early 1900s and we know now that this viral infection must run its course. This course tends to be anywhere from 7-10 days and is often accompanied by a post-viral cough that can last up to 3 weeks- longer if there are underlying chronic conditions (2). But that does not mean we don’t have methods to lessen the severity of the symptoms, or at the very minimum make them tolerable while your immune system fights the virus. We have generated a list of natural cold remedies that have been proven to help us fight off “the gift that keeps on giving”—the common cold.
The favorite “wives tale” of taking high doses of vitamin C while battling a cold is no longer just a wives tale. There is strong clinical research that details the many benefits of vitamin C intake in all realms of infection, however we will focus on cold remedy potential. “Meta-analysis has indicated that vitamin C supplementation with doses of 200 mg or more daily is effective in ameliorating the severity and duration of the common cold, and the incidence of the common cold if also exposed to physical stress” (3). In this study they note that “significant decrease in leukocyte vitamin C levels, and urinary excretion of the vitamin, have been reported to occur during common cold episodes, with levels returning to normal following the infection.” These phenomenon confirms that vitamin C is utilized by the body while battling a cold.
While it is mentioned in this study that 200mg or more is effective, many other studies suggest that higher doses during the acute phase (meaning the phase where you feel your worst) are more beneficial. We usually recommend 1000mg of vitamin C (assuming that the patient’s kidney function is completely normal as vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin and is primarily removed from the body by the kidneys) during the acute phase of the cold, with a reduction to 200-500mg daily as symptoms subside and for the next 30 days to prevent re-infection. So think of it this way. Have you ever heard of Emergen-C packets? Taking one of those a day during the yuckiest time of your cold will be sufficient enough to battle against the virus. Increasing your intake of citrus fruits can also assist you in hitting your 1000mg/daily dose mark.
Zinc is an essential element used to prevent and treat the common cold. Its ability to decrease the severity and duration of the common cold has been widely studied in various clinical journals. Zinc activates T lymphocytes (T cells) which control our immune response along with attacking cancerous or infectious cells (4). Those with zinc deficiency are susceptible to infection as these T-cells lack their lust for ridding of infection.
A systematic review of studies concluded that the use of zinc acetate over 75mg (and taken within 24 hours of onset of symptoms) showed a 42% reduction in the duration of symptoms. (5). Almost half of the usual duration! Whenever we see patients in clinic who present with signs and symptoms of the common cold we strongly encourage (along with hydration, rest, and vitamin C) a daily dose of zinc acetate at 100mg daily until symptoms subside. You can even continue to take afterwards to prevent future infections.
When it comes to air travel, I personally make sure to load up on vitamin C 1000mg and zinc acetate 100mg daily a week before, during, and a week after the flight. This helps to protect myself against the common cold while I’m around thousands of strangers and the viruses that lurk within them.
Did you know that peppermint can help open sinus passages and clear throat irritation? That the inhalation of chamomile helps soothes cold and flu symptoms? And that eucalyptus can aid in reducing fevers? Essential oils really have made a boost into the social media limelight with multi-level marketing groups such as DoTerra and Young Living, but their uses have been around for thousands of years. These “treatments” were all that our ancestors had to treat symptoms such as flu, pneumonia and, yes, the common cold.
A study conducted in 2010 showed some encouraging data that DoTerra’s essential oil called “On Guard” actually decreased the influenza virus replication by 90% (6). However, this has been argued by many as the study was performed with dog kidney cells and “in vitro” (in incubation plates) and decreasing the replication of the virus in human cells cannot be assumed.
In regards to the common cold, as explained above, the virus seems to only last about 7-10 days- so it will subside. In the meantime, certain essential oils can help aid in the symptoms that come with it. Here’s a brief run through:
Peppermint— eases headache, chest congestion (rub 1-2 drops on chest) and fever (apply small amount to temples and bottom of feet for reduction).
Thieves (blend of lemon, eucalyptus, cinnamon, clove, and rosemary)— has anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-septic properties. Aids in sore throat, runny noses, chest congestion, and reducing fever. Either can diffuse or place 2-3 drops in glass of water to drink for healing.
Lemon— Has antiviral properties and acts an a decongestant. Diffuse to improve mood while you are sick along with opening nasal passage ways to decrease congestion.
Chamomile— Soothes the headaches, muscle aches, and joint pains that come along with a viral infection. Take a few drops and rub into areas of tension, diffuse or add to warm bath to ease muscle aches, congestion and sore throat.
Oregano— A very powerful/potent essential oil that has even been compared to antibiotics. You can add 1-2 drops to water/juice and ingest to aid in sore throat and fight infection. This can be diffused or vaporized as well.
Lavendar—A gentle essential oil that aids in decreasing the replication of the virus along with easing tension headaches. You can create a decongestant rub by combining 2-3 drops with carrier oil (such as coconut oil) and rub onto chest. Also diffuse the lavender in the room you are sleeping in to aid in a restful night.
Eucalyptus— A soothing oil that aids in opening the airway passages when you feel completed congested. Mix with coconut oil massage/rub onto aching muscles. Eucalyptus is used in multiple brands of cough drops, so diffuse 2-3 drops to aid in coughing without having to injest all of the added sugars and alcohols that come with cough drops. (7)
Like I said, there are TONS of essential oils! They are used in many different ways, but this is just a brief overview of the benefits essential oils have in alleviating the symptoms of the common cold. I am sure it can be argued by the great minds in medicine, but if they have been used for thousands of years and make you feel better, what “harm” are you actually causing? Answer: None.
Considered an inexpensive, safe alternative to cough medication, honey has become a very popular cough suppressant- especially for mothers who do not want to give their young children (over the age of one) over-the-counter cough medication. These medications have added sugars, fillers, alcohol, and other potentially harmful medications that are not suggested for young children. Honey has been, and continues to be, studied amongst the conventional and functional medicine community with regards to the benefits it has to not only treat a cough, but to treat the common cold and bacterial infections.
A “RCT [randomized controlled trial] with 139 children (24 to 60 months of age) suffering from cough due to upper respiratory tract infection reported that 2.5 mL of honey before sleep improved cough frequency and severity, as well as sleep quality in a mean of 59% of children. This was a better improvement compared with dextromethorphan, diphenhydramine or placebo.” (8). Not only is honey helpful alone- it can be mixed with hot tea and aids in soothing a sore throat.
Now we are not saying “ditch whatever your doctor is telling you and do all of this to get better.” We are just making suggestions on a more natural approach to treating a common cold. In no way, shape, or form do any of these modalities take that place of antibiotics, cough suppressants, steroids, and other medications which are, at times, all necessities when it comes to treating more severe upper respiratory infections like chronic sinus infections, sinus abscesses, acute bacterial infections, and pneumonia.
The “treatments” listed above have been proven to aid in reducing symptoms, decreasing replication, and shortening the duration of the common cold virus. In all reality, if you do not use any of these natural remedies you will get better.. But it will be a miserable 7-10 day ride. Taking these suggested natural supplements will help to keep the common cold from throwing you completely off of your jam-packed schedule that is likely filled with all of the daily responsibilities of a busy full-time woman/mom/sister/wife/friend/employee. Hopefully you don’t catch the common cold (fingers crossed), but if you do, you now have a plan on how to beat it quickly. Stay healthy friends!
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