Surviving the Common Cold: What the Research Says

While everyone has a cold treatment they swear by, scientific research has its own favorites. Here are a few therapies the data does (and doesn’t) support.

As soon as you touch the door handles in your child’s classroom, you can almost feel the germs latch on. Your partner mentions her secretary has the sniffles, and you immediately notice the back of your throat starting to scratch. Your cousin posts to Facebook his kids are just getting over a bad cold, and even though he lives across the country, you know it’s coming for you anyway. Getting sick is nearly impossible to avoid when you’re parenting youngsters with underdeveloped immune systems.

But at the very least, you can avoid ineffective cold remedies. While everyone has a cold treatment they swear by, scientific research has its own favorites. Here are a few therapies that the data does (and doesn’t) support.

Elderberry

Elderberry is the most recent trend in cold and flu remedies, but don’t overlook this newcomer. A small study of flu patients found that those who took three teaspoons of elderberry syrup four times a day for five days were symptom-free four days sooner than those who took a placebo. Another small study found that air travelers who took elderberry supplements were less likely to contract colds, and those who did had less severe cold symptoms.

Zinc

Zinc won’t stop a cold in its tracks, but it’s still one of your best bets. Research has shown that taking zinc within the first 24 hours of symptoms, and continuing through the length of the cold, can reduce the length of a cold by an average of one day. Sure, one day might not be much, but if it’s the day that you have to coach your kid’s basketball game or nail a big presentation at work, it might be worth it. 

Other studies have even found colds to be reduced by as much as 35 to 40 percent.The downside of zinc is a potential for bad taste and nausea. Be sure to take zinc on a full stomach.

Echinacea

Echinacea is often touted as a way to prevent colds but the jury is still out on this one. A study found that taking 900 mg of Echinacea a day did not reduce the likelihood of contracting colds or the severity of symptoms. Other studies, however, found the opposite. A meta-analysis from University of Connecticut claims that Echinacea can reduce the chance of contracting a cold by 58 percent, and reduce the duration by an average of 1.4 days. Echinacea is ineffective for children.

Nasal irrigation

Your sister-in-law swears by it. Your mom keeps calling you to ask if you’ve tried it yet. But it’s just so dang gross. Can you really shoot water up your nose to make the gunk come out, and is it even worth it?

Yes, yes it is. Researchers believe nasal irrigation, often referred to by the brand name “Neti Pot,” may help relieve symptoms of acute respiratory tract infections with minimal side effects. If you can get your child to do it, it’s effective for them also.

Over-the-counter medicine

For children, the dangers of over-the-counter medications likely outweigh the benefits. Several studies have found that antihistamines and decongestants are no more effective than placebos for treating coughs or promoting sleep in children, but are in the top 20 substances leading to death in children younger than five years of age.

For adults, cough medicines with dextromethopran modestly decrease cough severity and frequency compared to a placebo.

Honey

The easiest remedy to convince children to take might also be one of the best. Buckwheat honey is more effective than placebo for reducing coughs and improving sleep for children, but should not be used in children younger than one year due to the risk of botulism.

Vitamin C

Put down the glass of orange juice. If you are already sick with a cold, it’s too late for Vitamin C to do you much good. Research has found that taking 200 mg of Vitamin C before getting sick can help reduce the duration of cold symptoms by an average of one day. For most people, however, taking the vitamin did not reduce the likelihood of getting a cold.

Essential oils

Peppermint, eucalyptus, teatree – when it comes to cold and flu season, are these potions essential or another brand of snake oil?  Unfortunately, research on the effectiveness of essential oils remains pretty weak. Eucalyptus and peppermint oil, however, have long been used as decongestants. Neither should be used on children younger than two; in fact, peppermint oil can cause life-threatening breathing problems for infants.

If sleeping with Vicks VapoRub and socks on your feet sounds like a sweaty and sticky torture, feel free to skip this remedy. There is no evidence to suggest that it works. A study in the journal Pediatrics, however, notes that parents have found it effective in helping their children get a better night’s sleep when applied to the chest. However, camphor oil – a main ingredient in vapor rubs – can be toxic to children under two and should not be used on infants.

Sleep

“When you’re sick, rest is best, rest is best,” our friend Daniel Tiger loves to remind us. Of course, for a parent, resting is far harder than taking a vitamin supplement. But research shows that sleeping six hours or less a night can makes it four times more likely an adult will catch colds compared to those who slept seven hours per night. Those who regularly slept less than five hours of sleep had a nearly a fifty/fifty shot at catching a cold when exposed to a virus, compared to an one in six chance for those who slept seven or more hours a night.

Antibiotics

Quite simply, there is no way an antibiotic will help the common cold. Colds are viral infections, and antibiotics treat bacterial ones. Research backs this claim up. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also cautions that antibiotics are not needed for sinus infections caused by viruses.

If your favorite remedy didn’t make the list, don’t discount the placebo effect. Snuggling up with your favorite tea or your grandmother’s chicken noodle soup will do you good even if they don’t decrease cold symptoms by a statistically significant amount.