Herbal remedies are more effective for preventing and treating a common cold than anything I can prescribe as a doctor. I’ve reviewed what I believe are the best natural cold remedies below and provided links to the research evidence. If you’ve tried any of these, or any other product, please let me know how you got on using the comments box.
Almost two hundred different viruses can cause symptoms of the common cold, making them the most common infection we have to deal with. Adults get an average of two to three colds per year, while kids sometimes suffer as many as 10 or more, each causing varying degrees of headache, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, muscle pain, fever and feeling miserable.
People who are harbouring cold viruses are at their most contagious up to three days before symptoms show. That’s why you often can’t pinpoint exactly where you contracted a nasty cold. Chances are, it wasn’t that poor person snivelling as they passed you in the street, but someone with whom you shook hands while they seemed relatively well.
Colds are four times less common during summer than in winter, but tend to produce more unpleasant symptoms. The combination of a blocked nose and a hot, airless bedroom is guaranteed to interfere with sleep, leaving you feeling tired and exhausted, too.
One of the reasons a cold is so unpleasant during hot, summer months is because of the way erectile tissues on each side of the nose usually take it in turns to swell and block air flow. Known as the nasal cycle, this phenomenon is thought to aid the detection of smells as it traps air within each nostril for 40 minutes or more. This gives volatile chemicals more chance to stimulate smell receptors in the roof of the nose.
During summer, however, heat encourages swelling of tissues in both sides of the nose, rather than just one, making cold symptoms worse. And on top of that, if you also have hayfever, nasal inflammation means cold symptoms are more severe and last for longer.
Colds verus influenza
Respiratory infections caused by influenza A and B viruses tend to peak in winter and spring, when they infect between 5% and 10% of the population. Like a cold, symptoms of ‘flu start with a dry cough, sore throat and runny nose which become significantly worse with chills, fever, headache, loss of appetite, fatigue and widespread muscle aches and pains that leave you bed bound.
A bad cold can seem very similar to influenza and, in a typical year, only 6% of tests taken for suspected ‘flu prove positive. The following chart shows how symptom severity compares to help you tell one from the other, although this is not always easy – even for a doctor.
Boost your immunity against colds
When you are exposed to cold or ‘flu viruses you don’t necessarily have to become unwell. If you are fit and follow a healthy diet and lifestyle, your immune system can help you shrug off the infection with few, if any, symptoms. The following tips will help.
Obtain a good intake of vitamin D (from fortified foods, oily fish, supplements, sensible sun exposure) which has an important role in immunity and the prevention of upper respiratory tract infections. People with the highest vitamin D levels are less likely to experience a cold than those with low levels.
In fact, lack of any vitamin or mineral increase the chance of developing cold symptoms. While diet should always come first, a good multivitamin (which includes vitamin D) will provide a nutritional safety net if you now your diet is not as good as it should be.
This is particularly important for older people (over the age of 70) whose ability to absorb some vitamins and minerals is reduced due to lower levels of stomach acid and intestinal enzymes. Research involving 96 older people showed that those taking multivitamins for one year had better immune function, mounted a better response to influenza vaccination, and had half as many days ill with infections compared with those not taking multivitamin supplements (23 days in the year versus 48).
Avoid excess stress which reduces immune function and increases your susceptibility to cold symptoms – the higher your level of stress, the higher your chance of infection This is partly by reducing immunity and partly because of the way microbes respond to raised levels of stress hormones Often you develop symptoms at the end of a period of stress, just when you’re winding down – which is why a cold often mars the beginning of a holiday when you are exposed to more infections when travelling, on a plane, or in a new environment.
Stress has also been shown to reduce the protective effects of influenza vaccination – the more stressed you are, the fewer antibodies you produce following immunisation.
Avoid smoking and air-borne pollutants which damage respiratory linings and suppress your natural defences against cold viruses and lung infections.
Take regular exercise to maintain a good level of fitness, but avoid over-training which suppresses immunity.
Keep your nose warm and avoid cold air – chilling constricts nasal blood flow, and local immunity, to triple your chance of developing symptoms when exposed to a cold virus.
Get enough sleep, as people who sleep for less than 7 hours a night are almost three times more likely to develop cold symptoms than those who regularly sleep for 8 hours or more. And if you toss-and-turn, finding it difficult to nod off, or wake several times during the night, you are five times more likely to develop symptoms when exposed to a cold virus than if you fall asleep soon after going to bed, and snooze peacefully throughout the night.
Prevent the spread of cold germs
Good hygiene is vital to limit the transmission of respiratory infections, especially if you are in close contact with children. Encourage everyone to wash their hands regularly, including after blowing their nose and before eating. Using antibacterial hand wipes or sprays will provide extra protection.
Kleenex anti-viral tissues kill 99.9% of cold and ‘flu viruses within 15 minutes. In contrast, viruses can survive for at least 24 hours in normal tissues.
Wipe down door handles regularly as micro-organisms can survive on plastics and stainless steel for many hours.
If possible, avoid people with obvious cold symptoms and DO NOT shake their hand! Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with your hands as this can easily transfer cold viruses from door handles (and infected handshakes) to your vulnerable mucosal lining cells.
Best Natural Cold Remedies
The following natural remedies are the ones I have found most effective – both as a doctor and as the mum of three children. In my experience:
- For prevention of a cold, the best product is Echinacea.
- For treatment of a cold, the best product is Pelargonium.
- For treatment of influenza, the best product is Elderberry extracts
- Using a decongestant oil will help you sleep.
I’ve reviewed my go-to herbal brands below. Always read the in-pack patient information leaflet.
Pelargonium for treating colds
Pelargonium is an herbal remedy that was originally used by Zulu warriors to treat infections. Pelargonium sidoides root extracts are highly effective for relieving common cold symptoms, a blocked or runny nose, sinusitis, bronchitis, tonsillitis and sore throats, and is licensed as a traditional herbal remedy in the UK.
Pelargonium works in a number of different ways, which you can read about in greater depth on my Nutritional Medicine website. Briefly, it boosts immunity, has antiviral and antibacterial actions, and helps clear mucus and infections from the airways. Data from eight trials, involving almost 750 adults and over 800 children with acute bronchitis, found it can significantly reduce cough, sputum production, headache and nasal discharge.
I’ve found it improves cold symptoms rapidly – certainly within 24 hours – when started as soon as possible after infection strikes. Keep taking it for three days after your symptoms have resolved to stop them coming back.
|Schwabe Pharma’s Kaloba tablets are available in packs of 30, or a handy pocket pack of 16 tablets – enough to treat one cold. Dose is 1 tablet, three times a day.
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|Schwabe’s Kaloba cough and cold relief drops contain Pelargonium sidoides root extracts in tincture form. This is the original Pelargonium tincture which put this remedy on my radar as an effective herbal remedy for the common cold.
Dose for adults and children over 12 years is 30 drops, added to water or juice, three times a day. For children aged 6 to 12 years, dose is 20 drops in water or juice, three times a day.
|Herb Pharm’s Umckaloabo contains certified organic root of Pelargonium sidoides and its herbal potency is confirmed through laboratory testing. The suggested dose is up to 40 drops, added to water or juice, two to four times per day between meals.
Echinacea for preventing colds
Echinacea is a popular treatment for the common cold and is also used for prevention. In the UK, it is licensed as a traditional herbal remedy for relieving cold and ‘flu symptoms. It works in a number of different ways, which you can read about in greater depth on my Nutritional Medicine website. Briefly, it increases the number and activity of white blood cells involved in fighting infections, and has an anti-inflammatory action to reduce symptoms if infection takes hold. Data from 14 different trials confirms that Echinacea can reduce the chance of developing a cold by 58% and shorten the duration of those that do occur by 1.4 days. It may be taken in low dose, long-term, to reduce infections, or in a higher dose just when you feel an infection coming on.
Some herbalists believe the most effective products are those that are made from fresh or dried juice or freshly harvested plants of Echinacea purpurea, rather than from dried leaves/roots and other Echinacea species. Others believe that Echinacea roots are the most effective. Extracts produced from fresh plants contain almost 3 times more active ingredients than from the equivalent amount of dried herb, however.
Echinacea is not recommended for use in children under the age of 12 as allergic reactions have occurred in younger age groups.
Elderberry for treating colds
Elderberry extracts contain natural antiviral substances that are active against influenza types A and B, including the most virulent strains, and is at least 68.37% effective against H1N1 (swine flu). In one trial, involving 60 people with influenza- like symptoms found that those taking elderberry syrup four times a day for five days got better, on average, 4 days earlier than those receiving a placebo. It appears to increase antibody production, and to block viral multiplication. It also has an antibiotic action that may help to prevent secondary bacterial infections on top of ‘flu.
|Sambucol Immuno Forte Liquid combines black elderberry extracts with vitamin C and zinc.
Suggested dose for adults is 10ml (2 teaspoons) four times daily.
Suggested dose for children aged 3 to 12 years is 10ml, twice daily.
Essential oils for treating colds
Steam inhalations are invaluable to unblock a stuffy nose. They are more effective if you add mentholated essential oils which have a natural decongestant action. These oils can be used for direct inhalation, too. When inhaled, they stimulate nasal receptors at the front of the nose to give the sensation of improved airflow. These essential oils are widely available as drops, rubs, bath additives and inhalers.
|Olbas oil contains a blend of decongestant essential oils with anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antiseptic actions. Place a few drops on a knotted hanky and inhale to help you sleep when your nose is blocked.
This product is a staple in our home first aid cupboard.
|Olbas for children can be used from the age of 3 months to help little ones sleep at night. This gentler formulation is specially designed for inhalation by children and infants.
|Olbas Bath has a lovely, therapeutic smell of menthol and peppermint. Add a mere half-capful to your bath under the running taps and let the bubbles form. Then lie back, breathe easily and let the soothing oils relax your cold away.
This decongestant bath oil really perks you up when you’re feeling rubbish due to a cold.
|The Olbas Inhaler is a clever device that lets you carry olbas oil with you whenever you are out and about during the day. Just unscrew and gently sniff the therapeutic oils to rapidly unblock your nose. Great for taking to work or school, and for keeping in the car.
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Vitamin C for treating colds
Whether or not vitamin C is effective in preventing colds is controversial. If levels are high enough, however, it can suppress the activation of viral genes and mop up the inflammatory chemicals produced during a cold to shorten the severity and duration of symptoms.
Early studies suggested it was most effective in school children, students, military troops under training, and men doing heavy physical exercise – all of whom are particularly prone to respiratory infections. At least two studies also showed that vitamin C supplements decreased the occurrence of asthma attacks (which are often triggered by respiratory infections) by as much as 78% – partly through the antiviral action, and partly by reducing airway sensitivity.
The most recent Cochrane review into vitamin C and colds included data from 30 trials, involving over 11,300 people, showed a consistent treatment benefit with a reduction in the duration of a cold of 8% in adults and, in children, a reduction of 18%.
From personal experience, I’ve found that taking vitamin C (500mg daily in chewable form) seems to keep colds at bay. If one does rear its head, I up my vitamin C dose, reach for my Pelargonium tablets and know that within 24 hours these symptoms will be a distant memory!
NB If you are a known kidney-stone former, do not take vitamin C supplements. Some urine tests are affected by high dose vitamin C supplements – tell your doctor if you need any urine/stool tests; if you have diabetes and use urine glucose tests check you are using a kit that is not affected.
|Vitamin C that is encapsulated in liposomes has maximum bioavailabilty and is rapidly absorbed ot get to work quickly. Each sachet of Lypo-Spheric or Altrient Vitamin C supplies a 1,000mg dose.
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|Solgar’s Ester-C Plus is a non-acidic form of vitamin C to prevent digestive irritation at higher doses. Each tablet provides 1000mg vitamin C plus bioflavonoids.
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When do you need to see a doctor?
Seek medical advice if you develop a cold and have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD – chronic bronchitis or emphysema), low immunity or other serious health problems, especially if you are getting worse or if the infection seems to be spreading to the chest.
Those most at risk of a chest infection after a cold include: the elderly, smokers, people with diabetes and those with other health problems (eg cancer) or lung problems (eg asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema). Symptoms that suggest this has happened include increasing feelings of being unwell, fever, increasing shortness of breath and bringing up thick green phlegm, sometimes with chest pain, especially on breathing in.
If chest pain occurs, seek medical advice straight away.
If ‘flu symptoms develop in infants, children, the over 65s, or in someone with a pre-existing health problem, seek medical advice as complications such as pneumonia are more common in these groups.
Vaccination is available to help protect people at particular risk – seek advice from your GP or pharmacist.
Have you used any natural remedies to treat a cold or ‘flu? If so, did you find them helpful? Do you keep an invaluable remedy in your medicine cupboard, like I always have pelargonium on hand?
If you have any questions or comments, please use the form below and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.