Introduction and Summary
Because colds and flus are caused by viruses and not bacteria, there are no medications or antibiotics that will cure them. However, there are home remedies, foods, vitamins, and supplements that have been proven to shorten the duration of a cold or flu, ease the severity of symptoms, and offer some comfort while you recover.
We also have in depth articles where you can learn more about the common cold, the flu and OTC medicines for the cold and flu.
Here’s a look at what I’ll cover in this article:
- Cold and Flu Home Remedies That Work
- Foods, Vitamins, and Supplements for a Cold
- Herbal and Homeopathic Medicines
- Cold and Flu Prevention
- When to See a Doctor
Cold and Flu Home Remedies That Work
Some cold and flu symptoms, like fever, coughing, and congestion, are your immune system’s way of fighting illness, and can be a helpful part of the healing process. For example, a fever kills viruses with high temperatures, so enduring a moderate fever for a day or two can get you better faster than if you suppress it with medication.
Likewise, coughing, sneezing, and a runny nose can also help you heal faster by clearing your airways of germ-ridden mucus. So holding off on the decongestants and cough suppressants may actually shorten the duration of your cold or flu. While being sick is no fun, sometimes the wisest choice is to let your body fight with its own natural resources.
Here are some things you can do to support your body in healing, and staying more comfortable while it does.
- Get plenty of rest: Perhaps the most important thing you can do is give your body the rest it needs to fight infection and heal. Stay home from work and school (your colleagues will thank you for not spreading germs), make sure you’re nice and warm, and curl up with a good book, movie, or series you’ve been meaning to catch up on.
- Stay hydrated: Drinking water, tea, juices, clear broth, or warm lemon water with honey prevents dehydration from a fever and also helps to dilute congestion and carry it out. Stay away from alcohol, coffee, and sodas, which can be dehydrating.
- Gargle: Gargling half a teaspoon of salt dissolved in eight ounces of warm water several times a day can help relieve a sore or scratchy throat. You can also gargle with honey dissolved in warm water or some honey and lemon for a soothing treat.
- Keep the throat moist: To relieve pain from a raw or sore throat, try sucking on ice chips, popsicles, or mentholated cough drops. You can also try herbal and over-the-counter throat sprays to ease the pain.
- Humidify: Humid air can help loosen congestion and soothe a sore throat and nose. It also creates an inhospitable environment for influenza, which prefers a dry climate. To create humidity, you can use a cool mist humidifier. For extra benefit, try adding a few drops of eucalyptus or peppermint oil to the water to stimulate breathing and clear your sinuses. It’s important to note that the water used in humidifiers should be changed daily to avoid mold and fungi from growing. If you don’t have a humidifier, take a hot steamy shower to moisturize your dry air passages and ease any muscular aches from the flu. If you feel weak or dizzy from the flu, you can sit in the bathroom and while a steamy shower runs.
- Blow your nose: This might seem like a no-brainer, but blow your nose! Mucus is produced to help move germs out of the body, so it's important to blow your nose regularly rather than sniffling mucus back. To avoid causing an earache by blowing too hard, try covering one nostril with a finger while gently blowing the other one. Same thing goes for not suppressing a sneeze–let it go!
- Irrigate a stuffy nose with warm salt water: Rinsing with warm salt water can help loosen nasal congestion, and encourage virus particles and bacteria to flow from your nose.
A popular method: Mix 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda in 8 ounces of warm water. Tip your head to one side, and using a bulb syringe or a nasal irrigation kit like a neti pot, pour water into one nostril. Hold the other nostril closed with light pressure from the outside of the nose. Then let the water drain out. Repeat two to three times, then treat the other nostril. You can also use over-the-counter saline nasal drops and sprays.
- Warm bath: A warm bath can soothe the body aches that can accompany the flu. Baths are also surefire ways to relax and induce drowsiness to help you get that good night’s sleep that is so important to your immune system. You can try adding Epsom salt and baking soda to your bath to further reduce body aches, or some drops of tea tree, juniper, rosemary, thyme, orange, lavender, or eucalyptus essential oils to clear nasal passages and for a soothing effect.
- Mentholated salve: Placing a small dab of salve with menthol, eucalyptus, and camphor under your nose can help to open breathing passages and calm skin irritated from wiping and blowing. You can also try spreading some vapor rub on your chest to help open airways, reduce coughing, and improve sleep.
- Elevate your head: Sleeping with an extra pillow under your head while you’re congested will help to clear nasal passages by encouraging mucus to drain down. It can help you cough and sniffle less throughout the night.
Foods, Vitamins, and Supplements for a Cold
- Chicken soup: While not the all-powerful panacea some swear it is, research does suggest that eating a hot bowl of chicken soup can slow the movement of neutrophils, infection-fighting white blood cells, throughout your body. When they’re moving slowly, neutrophils can concentrate and work more effectively to heal the areas of your body that need it.
- Honey: In addition to soothing the throat when eaten or dissolved in tea or hot water, honey has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties to help your body fight infection. It can be used as a gentle cough suppressant as well. Just remember never to give honey to a child less than 1 year old, as it can contain botulinum dangerous to babies whose immune systems can’t yet fight them off.
- Garlic: Garlic also contains infection-fighting antimicrobial properties, which can speed up healing and reduce the severity of cold and flu symptoms. Some believe it’s more effective in preventing you from getting sick in the first place. More on that below.
- Oregano oil: Oregano contains the compounds thymol and carvacrol, which can fight infection. Oregano oil can be taken internally or rubbed on the chest or temples to relieve headaches and coughing.
- Echinacea: Echinacea contains flavonoids, which boost your immune system and reduce inflammation. While best known for lowering your risk of developing a cold by over 50%, ingesting Echinacea root through capsule, tincture, or tea may also reduce the length of a cold once you have it.
- Probiotics: Probiotics are the “good” bacteria that live in your gut. They support your immune system and can help prevent colds and the flu, as well as help you heal from colds and flu if you contract them. You can take probiotics as a supplement in pill or drink form, or eat foods in which probiotics are naturally occurring like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, and kombucha.
- North American ginseng: Though studies report mixed results on its effectiveness, North American ginseng may help reduce the duration and symptoms of a cold or flu. Ginseng can be consumed raw, in capsule form, or as a tea.
- Vitamin C: Taking vitamin C, whether as a supplement or by eating lots of citrus fruits, leafy greens, and berries, as soon as you notice cold symptoms may shorten the cold’s duration.
- Zinc: Zinc lozenges have been shown to shorten the length of a cold, especially when taken within 24 hours of onset.
- Hot spices: Spicy foods like chili and cayenne pepper, mustard and horseradish, and ginger can open blocked nose and sinuses, and help break up mucus in the airways and lungs. These spices can also fend off nausea and loss of appetite that can accompany cold and flu.
- Berries: In addition to providing vitamin C, which can help support the immune system, berries contain polyphenols, which have antiviral properties that may help fight flu viruses. Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are all good choices, and research has shown that elderberries and cranberries can especially reduce symptoms of the flu and support immune function.
- Stomach-soothing foods: Sometimes cold and flu can upset the stomach and cause diarrhea and nausea. To combat this, try eating plain foods like bananas, toast, and white rice to soothe an upset stomach and calm diarrhea. Blueberries have also been shown to curb diarrhea, with the added benefit of containing natural aspirin, which WebMD reports can lower fevers and help with aches and pains.
Herbal and Homeopathic Medicines
In addition to healthy foods and activities, you can give your healing a boost with these herbal and homeopathic remedies.
- Sambucol: There is evidence that Sambucol, a black elderberry extract, can short-circuit flu symptoms. More research is needed to understand how, but studies show that if taken when symptoms first appear, it can inactivate the flu virus, shortening its duration and decreasing the severity of symptoms. One study showed that “93% of flu patients given Sambucol were completely symptom-free within two days,” while those taking a placebo recovered in six. It's likely that flavonoids, a type of antioxidant, are the active agents here, stimulating the immune system. Elderberries also contain anthocyanins, which reduce inflammation and could lessen aches, pains, and fever. Unlike the drugs Tamiflu and Relenza used to treat flu, Sambucol has no side effects or interactions.
- Umcka: Umcka (Pelargonium sidoides) is a South African geranium plant. Numerous studies have shown it is effective for treating bronchitis, rhinosinusitis, and decreasing the severity of colds. The National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that results from treating a cold with Umcka “is dramatically better than other common OTC treatments, including vitamin C, echinacea, and zinc preparations.” However, there have been side effects reported with Umcka, including allergic reaction and gastrointestinal upset. It’s also possible that Umcka could interact with blood thinners (antiplatelet and anticoagulant drugs) such as warfarin and aspirin.
- Oscillococcinum: This is a popular homeopathic remedy used to treat symptoms of the common cold and flu. Homeopathic remedies contain minute amounts of medicinal substances, often so diluted that active ingredients cannot be detected in a lab. Because of this, they are quite safe with no known interactions or side effects. However, any beneficial effects are scientifically unfounded and controversial, despite much anecdotal evidence that they decrease the severity of symptoms and shorten the duration of both cold and flu. The placebo effect may be at work here, as Oscillococcinum is widely used and its benefits touted.
Cold and Flu Prevention
It’s nearly impossible to avoid all germs, but by getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and keeping stress in check you’ll keep your immune system in the best shape to ward off colds and flu when you are exposed. People with compromised immune systems, like those who are pregnant, have certain medical conditions, or take immune-suppressant medications, should take special care with preventative measures.
Here are some other tips to help you avoid colds and flus:
- Wash your hands: Viruses can live on the hands, so regular hand-washing is one of the best ways to avoid getting a cold or flu. Use soap and warm water, and rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds, making sure to clean under your fingernails. If soap and water aren’t available, alcohol-containing hand sanitizers are the next best option. It’s especially important to wash your hands when you’re eating or preparing food, before inserting contact lenses, or after spending time in public spaces, like libraries, markets, on public transportation, or touching shared keyboards, doorknobs, and telephones.
- Get enough sleep: According to the Archives of Internal Medicine, getting a minimum of eight hours of sleep each night results in greater resistance to the flu virus. During extended sleep, the body releases cytokines, a type of protein that regulates the immune system and helps fight infection.
- Exercise: Staying active helps to circulate white blood cells, which help fight disease. Activities like taking a brisk walk three times a week, or some vigorous yoga also reduces stress and helps to circulate lymph, both important in keep illness at bay.
- Avoid sharing personal items: Cold and flu viruses can survive on surfaces outside the body for about 24 hours, so during cold and flu season it’s a good idea to keep toothbrushes, towels, and eating and drinking utensils to yourself. Wash children’s shared toys in hot soapy water to avoid sharing germs.
- Have some fun: De-stressing and being social can help you get better faster! Loneliness can significantly reduce immune system functioning. Stress can also weaken your immune system and increase inflammation, which makes you more susceptible to disease. So, in the name of health, try to do activities you enjoy and that relax you with the ones you love.
- Avoid smoking and drinking alcohol: Smoking and excessive drinking suppress the immune system and even make the flu vaccine less effective.
- Eat green vegetables: Green vegetables are a rich source of vitamins and minerals that support your immune system.
- Take Vitamin D: No matter that season, most Americans are deficient in vitamin D, a nutrient important to the immune system. You can get Vitamin D through a supplement, and through foods like egg yolks, mushrooms, salmon, canned tuna, and beef liver.
- Take vitamin C, zinc, probiotics and garlic: In addition to helping you recover when you get sick, taking Vitamin C, Zinc, Probiotics and garlic during cold and flu season can help your immune system ward off colds and flus, especially if you’re stressed.
- Have a cup of green tea: Green tea’s high level of flavonoids, immune-supporting antioxidants, might be the key to its power in helping fight infection. A few cups a day can also lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
When to See a Doctor
If cold and flu symptoms last for longer than two weeks or become more severe, let your health provider know. You should also notify your doctor if, in addition to cold and flu symptoms, you experience:
- Temperature higher than 102° F (38.9°C) in children and adults, or higher than 100.4° F (38°C) in infants
- Earache or drainage from your ear
- Pain upon swallowing
- Stiffness in your neck
More immediate medical attention is needed if you experience:
- Trouble breathing
- Shortness of breath or chest pain