Consumer Wise: Cold remedies that work

By Angie Moreschi, Consumer Wise Host
Last Updated: Tuesday, December 26, 2017, 10:59 AM EST

Randy Knox has been feeling miserable for a week — sneezing, coughing, sore throat, chills.  It’s one of the worst colds he’s ever had.

  • Doctor talks about over-the-counter cold remedies
  • No cures, but some products claim to ward off symptoms
  • Doctors recommend flu shot, washing hands

“I’ve never sneezed like this in my life," he said. “Raw red throat, hacking, no one wanted to be around me at all,” he added, shaking his head.

Knox says he’s generally healthy and rarely gets sick. He takes lots of vitamins, including zinc, which some studies say can help ward off colds, but this time the germs got him anyway.

Primary care physician Dr. Eric Crall says, in general, there’s not much you can do to prevent or stop the common cold once you have it other than give it time.

“The old adage that a cold will get better in a week if you treat it, and seven days if you don’t, is certainly true,” he said jokingly.

Vitamins and supplements

Although there is no cure for the cold, there are several products that claim to help ward off symptoms or make you feel better faster — everything from echinacea, vitamin C, Oscillo and zinc. Scientific evidence for these products is somewhat mixed — but there is some promise.

“One thing that seems to be true is that zinc can be taken throughout the cold and flu season, and it may actually help prevent it,” Crall said.

As for vitamin C and echinacea, he says taking them at the first sign of a cold can help, a little.

“They are most helpful is you start taking them within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms and they may reduce the duration by a day or so,” Crall explained.

For people who think taking these vitamins and products definitely work to prevent colds, Crall says the placebo effect could be at work.

“The placebo effect could account for 30 to 40 percent of benefits,” he said. “So, it’s possible.”

Treating symptoms

Once you have a cold, treating the symptoms is the goal. First, stay hydrated. Drink lots of beverages like water, juice and herbal tea.

“It actually pulls fluid out of the mucus membrane to open up nasal packages, ” Crall said. “You need to get that mucus out of your body to prevent sinus infections. That’s what hydration does.”

Using an expectorant, like Mucinex, is another way to help to loosen mucus. Also, try to stay away from caffeinated beverages, which can actually dehydrate you.

And guess what? Mom was right: Chicken soup actually does help make you feel better. Research shows it can calm inflammation, which helps an achy body; and the warm liquid helps to ease stuffiness.

Saline drops and rinses also help to cure stuffiness, just about as well as over the counter decongestants and antihistamines. 

And speaking of antihistamines, it’s best to avoid them, if you can.

“You’re increasing the chance of it going into a sinus infection by taking an antihistamine, because it’s thickening the mucus, so then you can’t get rid of it,” Crall explained. “Remember, we’re trying to stay hydrated to keep the phlegm loose. Taking an antihistamine dries you out.”

For a sore throat, lozenges can help, but gargling with salt water is even better.

“It soothes the throat and also can kill any bacteria that are there, because it has an antiseptic effect, as well,” Crall said.

Antibiotics not for colds

Don’t bother using antibiotics for a cold, which is viral. They only help bacterial infections. Plus, you can do yourself more harm than good.

“If you take an antibiotic for something that’s viral, the only thing you’re killing is your own healthy bacteria,” Crall explained. “And you make the bacteria in your body antibiotic resistant for the next time you might need it.”

If you find your cold hasn’t gotten any better in about a week, it could be an indication that it’s turned into a sinus infection or bacterial bronchitis. That’s when it is time to see the doctor to potentially get a prescription for antibiotics.

Stop the spread of germs

Don’t forget to wash your hands to help avoid picking up or spreading cold germs. And if you do end up with a cold, be sure to cough into the sleeve of your arm, instead of your hand. 

Lastly, one thing you really should do, if you haven’t already, is get the flu shot. The doctor says it really does help to build up immunity, and there’s no longer live virus in the vaccine.  So, you can’t get the flu from the shot. It’s a good idea, because if you think a cold is bad, getting the flu is a lot worse.

“You have that all-over achy feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck,” Crall said, describing the flu. “There’s no comparison.”