20 Cold and Flu Remedies, According to Medical Experts
'Tis the season—for feeling crummy. Your nose is running, your co-worker's coughing up a lung, and every kid you meet looks like they've been slimed. Nobody likes to be sneezing, congested and exhausted. But when the bug strikes (and trust us, it will) there are scientifically proven things you can do to make it less horrible.
We know, because we at The Remedy asked doctors and nurses, and here's exactly what advice they said to take—and what they take themselves.
Garlic may keep more than just sparkly vampires away. The aromatic ingredient has compounds that help the immune system fight germs. One small study showed the number of colds were cut almost in half by those who took a daily garlic supplement. "Old-fashioned home cold remedies with fresh garlic, freshly squeezed lemon, cayenne pepper, and honey are helpful," says Dr. Inna Lukyanovsky, PharmD. "This combo is a potent vitamin mix and immune booster."
Since ancient times, people have known about the antibacterial and healing properties of honey. Adding a teaspoon of it to your cup of tea can soothe your throat and make you feel a little bit better. Research suggests that honey can be an effective cough suppressant in children, too. A Pediatrics study of 300 children with upper-respiratory infections found that a single dose of 10 g of honey relieved nocturnal cough and helped them sleep. Just never give honey to a child under one year old—it often contains botulinum spores, which can cause a rare kind of poisoning of the nervous system in infants.
Saltwater gargles may sound like a lot of nonsense, but there is science to back it up. It's an anti-inflammatory hero that actually draws fluids from the tissues and reduces inflammation. A clinical study from Japan showed that gargling salt water can reduce the chance of catching a cold up 40 percent. And it's easy to make—add half a teaspoon of table salt to warm water. Then take a big sip and gargle by swishing in your throat and mouth for at least 30 seconds, then spit it out. Keep going until your cup is dry.
When you have a stuffy head, a runny nose and a sore throat all you want to do is sleep. You should! If you're feeling the first signs of a cold coming on, like the telltale tickle in the back of your throat and a cough that won't quit, that means your body needs rest to heal, so go ahead and snuggle in under the covers all day. The CDC recommends rest for recovery, so technically it's doctor's orders to take a nap. Ann Sepersky, BSN, RN agrees. "I always tell my patients to stay home and sleep when they're sick."
The Flu Shot
There's a reason health experts recommend the flu vaccine every year. It works. Last year, more than 647,000 people were hospitalized and 61,200 died due to flu complications. The CDC says everyone older than 6 months should get the flu shot, with very rare exceptions. Despite claims to the contrary, the flu vaccine prevents millions of illnesses every year.
But that's not the only benefit. A 2018 study showed getting your flu shot can reduce the risk of being admitted to an intensive care unit with a flu-related complication by a whopping 82 percent. When the people around them stay healthy, it also helps to protect babies, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems. And a study published in Pediatrics found the risk of death because of the flu was cut in half for kids who got the shot. The CDC recommends getting your vaccine by the end of October to give your body a chance to build immunity but it's never too late.
Vitamin C—If You Take it At This Specific Time
Your mom probably told you to drink a glass of orange juice when you felt sniffles coming on. Turns out there is some science behind that advice. "The first thing I reach for when I feel a cold coming on is vitamin C," says Dr. Kelly Bay. "Studies have shown that taking vitamin C within the first 24 hours of symptoms can lessen the length and severity of the cold."
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This little supplement can pack a big punch—if you take it early enough. "Zinc lozenges and syrup may be able to diminish the symptom duration of a cold by about a day if taken early enough," says Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, MD, FIDSA, Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. The theory, according to the Mayo Clinic, is that zinc may interfere with the virus' ability to multiply. When taken in lozenge or syrup form, zinc is thought to be even more effective because it stays in the throat longer and comes into contact with the rhinovirus. But there can be too much of a good thing—high doses of zinc can lead to anemia and other health problems. But stay away from sprays. The FDA warned against using zinc gel sprays and nasal swabs after more than 130 people reported losing their sense of smell after using them.
Remember having a cold when you were a child? You mom would reach for the little blue tub of Vicks VapoRub and smear it on your chest to help you feel better. The key ingredient for cold relief is the menthol, says Dr. Adalja. "The menthol likely has the beneficial effect of improving breathing, which can lead to better sleep with a cold." It should only be used in adults and children over the age of 2, and then only applied to the neck and chest. Never put it in or around your nostrils—topical camphor (another ingredient in Vicks VapoRub) can be absorbed through mucus membranes.
Turns out, this is another one your mom was right about. Chicken soup really is good for colds. A study in the journal Chest looked at the movement of white blood cells called neutrophils when combined with soup. The cells exposed to chicken soup showed significantly less movement, which suggested anti-inflammatory properties. "Chicken soup contains certain chemicals that may turn down the level of inflammation in your nasal passages from a cold," says Dr. Adalja. Beyond that, chicken soup is packed with nutrients and feels good on a sore throat.
What do the doctors reach for when they have colds? Probably the same things you do. Getting well takes rest, and it's nearly impossible to rest when you're uncomfortable (or can't breathe because you're so stuffed up). "When I get a cold, I will usually take an over-the-counter remedy that includes a decongestant, fever reducer, and cough suppressant," says Dr. Adalja. "Popular brands include DayQuil and Theraflu. This cocktail of medications provides symptomatic relief."
Water—and Here's Why
Hydration is key in your battle against the cold and flu viruses. If you have a fever, that increase in body temperature causes you to lose water, and that can lead to dehydration. The most important thing is to stay hydrated, says Dr. Myles Spar MD, chief medical officer of Vault Health. "The more hydrated you are, the thinner your mucus is, and the easier it is to clear up." Being sick can dehydrate your body quickly, so you really need to keep up with the H2O. "When you are under the weather, your body requires additional hydration to recover," says Dr. Bay. "Drinking at least half your body weight in ounces of water can be a good hydration goal."
Flu Antiviral Drugs
There is hope if you think you're coming down with the flu. Antiviral drugs are prescription medications that can be used to treat the flu, according to the CDC. They are not sold over-the-counter, and are most effective if started within two days of the onset of flu symptoms. Antiviral treatment can shorten the time you are sick by about a day—if you've ever had the flu, you know how horrible it is, so one less day of misery is worth a doctor visit. "You should also seek medical attention if you develop shortness of breath or are at high risk for complications such as pregnancy, immunosuppression, or lung disease," says Dr. Adalja.
It's not as well-known as some of the other remedies out there, but there's some evidence that elderberries can reduce how long you feel sick. "I always keep Sambucus, or elderberry, on hand during the winter months for is antiviral properties," says Dr. Jerrica Sweetnich ND, CNS of Revitalize Med. "Studies have shown that elderberry inhibits the binding of the influenza virus to the healthy cell, which blocks the replication of the virus and subsequently inhibits its actions. Elderberry will also activate anti-inflammatory molecules to reduce symptoms such as muscle aches and headaches."
"Eat your bacteria" is something you may find yourself telling your kids in the morning. Probiotics are helpful bacteria found in certain yogurts and fermented drinks like kombucha. They live in your gut to help promote "good" bacteria to keep your body functioning the way it should. "Probiotics are a great complementary treatment, since they can help boost your immune system and also have been shown to reduce the duration of illness in children and adults," says Dr. Bay. But just eating a Chobani won't keep you from getting sick. How well probiotics work depends on their potency, the specific strain, the right dose, and proper storage. Check the packaging or ask a nutritionist.
The aches and pains of illness make it tough to rest. The Mayo Clinic recommends acetaminophen or ibuprofen to get some much-needed relief. Be careful though–kids and teens with flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin because of the risk of Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal condition.
Wash Your Hands
It's not always possible to avoid the cold or flu, but washing your hands can really help. According to the NHS, cold viruses can survive on indoor surfaces for a week. That means you could pick up an infection just by touching a doorknob seven days after a sick person did. Flu viruses can live on hard surfaces for up to 24 hours, but on tissues for only 15 minutes. "I tell my patients to wash your hands," says Sepersky. "Now wash them again."
Ever wake up from a night of breathing through your mouth because you're stuffed up? Your tongue probably felt like cotton—not terribly pleasant. To help keep your airways hydrated, consider using a cool-mist humidifier while you're sleeping to add beneficial moisture to the air. But remember to change the water in your humidifier every day—bacteria and fungi can grow in the reservoir. Breathing that in could make you more sick! In a pinch, you can take a long, hot shower in a steamy bathroom.
Echinacea is a flower native to North America, and has long been used as an alternative treatment for everything from colds to yeast infections. Some people swear by it as a cold remedy — the extract is added to cough drops, vitamins, and drinks. But research is mixed the herb's effectiveness. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found no significant difference in severity or duration for those who took echinacea to treat cold symptoms. "Supplements can be helpful, but always could interact with certain medications," says Maggie Berghoff, NP. "Always call into your doctors office to check intersection of supplements to your medications, and get approval for safe use."
Drink Hot Liquids
Tea. Soup. Or even plain water. They all help relieve sinus pressure. A classic study showed "nasal mucus velocity and nasal airflow resistance" improved in a "statistically significant way compared to cold water."
Stay Home. Seriously, Just Stay Home.
Resist the urge to go in to the office sick. No one wants to get your germs, and pushing it could make things worse in the long run. "If you have the flu, the best thing you can do for yourself and also for those around you is to stay home and rest," says Dr. Heather Tynan. "Don't jump back into normal activity too soon to avoid relapse, and contact your doctor in case of any worrisome symptoms." And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don't miss these 50 Secrets to Live to 100.