Common Cold Home Remedies: Experts Weigh In

Mask mandates and social distancing measures caused the common cold, flu and other non-COVID-19 respiratory illnesses to be nearly non-existent last year, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting historically low transmission rates. However, many Americans have less natural immunity against these viruses this year, and with cold and flu season here, in addition to the ongoing pandemic, it’s important to stay healthy and protected.

“Because of social distancing and mask-wearing, last year’s cold and flu season was mild,” said Amelia Nadler, DNP, FNP-C, clinical quality manager at PhysicianOne Urgent Care. “This year, more people are planning on traveling and seeing family members outside their immediate household, which is going to lead to an increased amount of germs spreading.”

While there is no cure for the common cold, many turn to home remedies to find some form of relief. But with countless home remedy options, how do you know which ones will actually work for you or your loved ones? We sat down with Amelia Nadler and Dr. Amee Phan, DO, family medicine at UMass Memorial Health, to hear their recommendations and advice for staying healthy during this cold and flu season.

What are some home remedies for the common cold that work?

Common cold symptoms often include sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, coughing, sneezing, headaches and body aches. For individuals battling the common cold, here are some recommended therapies that can provide relief:

Drink lots of fluids.

When you’re sick, you typically lose more fluids. For example, frequently blowing your nose can contribute to an increase in fluid loss. Staying hydrated is key to battling the common cold, and helping you feel better faster.

“Besides preventing dehydration, fluid intake can keep your throat moist and help break up congestion,” said Nadler. “Ensure that you limit coffee, sodas and other caffeinated beverages as these can actually promote dehydration.” Liquids such as juice, broth or tea can be soothing and provide some congestion relief.

Inhale steam.

Nadler suggested that breathing in steam can relieve a runny nose and ease congestion. “Try standing in a hot shower or holding your head above a pot of boiling water,” she explained. “You can also sleep next to a humidifier for a better night’s rest.”

Elevate your head.

Sleeping with your head elevated helps to open your airway and may prevent snoring and sleep apnea. If you’re battling a cold, it can help ease nasal congestion. While elevating your head might already be part of your nightly sleep routine, Nadler encourages those who have cold symptoms to use an extra pillow. “Not only will this help to relieve nasal congestion, but it will make your mornings much less miserable,” she said.

Try over-the-counter (OTC) cold and cough medications.

Depending on your symptoms, an OTC cold or cough medication might provide some relief. Dr. Phan explained that OTC acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help with headache, fever, sore throat and muscle, joint or sinus pain. “A combination of an antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine, cetirizine, or loratadine, and a decongestant, such as pseudoephedrine, can help with some sinus congestion,” she explained.

Dr. Phan noted that OTC cough medicine, like dextromethorphan or guaifenesin, can help reduce coughing but it may not resolve the cough completely. Ensure that you take medications only as directed and consult with a doctor, especially before giving any medication to children.

What are some at-home common cold remedies that aren’t effective?

There are plenty of at-home cold remedies that can help ease symptoms, but it’s important to consider which ones might not be effective or could cause negative side effects. A few home remedies that haven’t been proven effective include:

Vitamin C.

There’s lots of confusion around how vitamin C can help fight against the common cold. “Taking vitamins and other supplements won’t help your body heal from a cold any faster,” Nadler explained. “However, that’s not to say taking vitamins isn’t important for your day-to-day health, but supplements alone will not fight the infection. Ensuring you’re getting enough rest and drinking fluids is the best way to get through the common cold.”

Zinc.

Zinc is a nutrient that plays an important role in immune system function, growth and wound healing. While the nutrient is often present in daily foods, such as meat, whole grains and dairy products, there isn’t enough research or evidence to prove that zinc is an effective treatment for the common cold.

“Zinc can cause nausea and can also leave a bad taste in your mouth,” said Dr. Phan. Since the actual benefits of using zinc are varied, and it has the potential to cause harmful side effects, it’s important to consult with your doctor before using.

Antibiotics

While antibiotics are not a home remedy, Dr. Phan frequently is asked about their effectiveness for the common cold.

“For those who have common cold symptoms, usually the illness can last for 7-10 days, sometimes a little longer,” she said. “The common cold is usually caused by viruses, so taking an antibiotic will not be effective and is something we do not recommend. Not only does it cause stomach upset and diarrhea, but it can also cause antibiotic resistance, which means that in the future when you need the antibiotic, the bacteria are resistant to the medication and will not work.”

How else can you stay healthy this winter?

Dr. Phan said that washing your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and wearing face masks to decrease the transmission of respiratory viruses are key to protecting yourself. Ensure you’re getting enough sleep and eating a good, balanced diet. Remember, if you’re feeling sick, the best thing you can do is stay home to reduce the risk of spreading illness.

To protect yourself against severe illness from the flu or COVID-19, it’s important to get vaccinated. If you have questions regarding immunizations, Harvard Pilgrim has resources to help guide you and your family.

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