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Common Cold Remedies


Updated May 30, 2014

7) Echinacea

Although recent findings question the use of echinacea for colds and flu, it’s still one of the most popular herbs used today. A 2005 study by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that echinacea did little to prevent or shorten the common cold. There were many critics of the study, who say that the study shouldn't be used as evidence that echinacea doesn't work. The Cochrane Collaboration conducted a review of 15 studies on echinacea, however, and found that it wasn't more effective than a placebo at preventing colds.

Although there are several types of echinacea, the above-ground parts (the leaves, flowers and stems) of echinacea purpurea have subject to the most research.

Herbalists often recommend taking echinacea every two to three hours with a total daily dose of three or more grams per day at the first sign of symptoms. After several days, the dose is usually reduced and continued for the following week. Echinacea is also an ingredient in Airborne, a supplement containing vitamins and herbs that’s sold over the counter.

8) Ginseng

Although there are many types of ginseng, one cultivated in North America called Panax quinquefolius or “North American ginseng" has become popular as a remedy for colds and flu. Compounds called polysaccharides and ginsenosides are thought to be the active constituents in ginseng. One of the more popular ginseng products is Cold-fX.

Two studies tested Cold-fX in 198 nursing home residents, who received either Cold-fX or a placebo. There was no statistically significant difference in the number of people who contracted the flu and no difference in the severity or duration of the flu. The researchers analyzed the results of the two studies together and only then did the results show that Cold-fX reduced the incidence of the flu. Although it's popular and some people swear by it, large, well-designed, independent trials are needed to determine the safety and effectiveness of this product.

There is some concern that ginseng may reduce the effectiveness of "blood-thinning" (anticlotting or antiplatelet) drugs such as warfarin (Coumadin) or aspirin. It may interact with diabetes medications, antidepressants known as MAO inhibitors, antipsychotic drugs (e.g., chlorpromazine (Thorazine), fluphenazine (Prolixin), olanzapine (Zyprexa)), drugs that stimulate the central nervous system (used to treat conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, narcolepsy, obesity, and heart conditions) and estrogen replacement therapy or oral contraceptives.

Ginseng root is thought to have estrogen-like properties and is usually not recommended for people with hormone-related conditions such as uterine fibroids, endometriosis and cancers of the breast, ovaries, uterus or prostate. People with heart conditions, schizophrenia or diabetes also shouldn’t take ginseng root unless under a doctor’s supervision. The manufacturer of Cold-fX indicates on their website that because their product isn't a whole plant extract but contains a certain compound found in ginseng, it doesn't have the side effects and safety concerns commonly associated with ginseng; although that's possible, there isn't published safety data confirming these claims.

More about ginseng

9) Ginger

Ginger root is another folk remedy for cough, colds and sore throat. It's used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat coughs and is also for colds accompanied by runny nose with a clear nasal discharge, headache, neck and shoulder aches, and a white tongue coating. In ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, ginger is also used for cough and colds.

Hot ginger tea is a popular home remedy for cold symptoms and sore throat. Honey and lemon are sometimes added.

Although normal amounts of ginger in food rarely causes side effects, excessive amounts may cause heartburn and indigestion. People with gallstones, bleeding disorders and those taking "blood-thinning" (anticlotting and antiplatelet) medications such as aspirin and warfarin (Coumadin) should consult a doctor before taking ginger. Ginger should be avoided two weeks before or after surgery.

10) Elderberry

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a herb that has a long history of use as a folk remedy for colds, sinus infections and the flu. In preliminary lab studies, elderberry extracts have been found to fight off viruses. There has been limited research done and much of it involves the flu virus. Researchers believe that anthocyanins, compounds found naturally in elderberries, may be the active component that strengthens the immune system and blocks the flu virus from sticking to our cells.

Health food stores carry elderberry juice, syrup and capsules. Side effects, although rare, may include mild indigestion or allergic reactions. Only commercially prepared extracts of the berry should be used, because the fresh leaves, flowers, bark, young buds, unripe berries and roots contain cyanide and could potentially result in cyanide poisoning. Read more about elderberry for the immune system.

11) Eucalyptus Steam Inhalation

A steam inhalation with eucalyptus oil may help to symptoms from colds and flu. It is thought to work by thinning mucus in the respiratory tract. Find out how to do a eucalyptus steam inhalation.

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    Douglas RM, Hemilä H, Chalker E, Treacy B. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2007 Jul 18;(3):CD000980.

    Josling P. Preventing the common cold with a garlic supplement: a double-blind, placebo-controlled survey. Adv Ther.18. 4 (2001):189-193.

    Linde K, Barrett B, Wolkart K, Bauer R, Melchart D. Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 1 (2006): CD000530.

    Predy GN, Goel V, Lovlin R, Donner A, Stitt L, Basu TK. Efficacy of an extract of North American ginseng containing poly-furanosyl-pyranosyl-saccharides for preventing upper respiratory tract infections: a randomized controlled trial. CMAJ.173.9 (2005): 1043-1048.

    Silk R, LeFante C. Safety of zinc gluconate glycine (Cold-Eeze) in a geriatric population: a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial. Am J Ther. 12.6 (2005): 612-617.

    Zakay-Rones Z, Thom E, Wollan T, Wadstein J. Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. J Int Med Res. 32.2 (2004): 132-140.

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