How to cure a cold

Many typical cold medicines can dry you out, put you to sleep, keep you up at night, or do nothing at all to make you better faster. But there are several gargles, teas and rubs that can help relieve the symptoms.

Initial treatments for colds

At the first hint of a cold, suck on a zinc gluconate lozenge every few hours. In one study, people who sucked on a lozenge that contained about 13mg of zinc every 2 hours while awake shook off their symptoms 3 to 4 days sooner than people who didn't. Start taking lozenges within 24 hours of the onset of cold symptoms. Don't exceed 150mg a day in total, and don't take zinc for longer than a week, because long-term use can actually weaken immunity. Avoid zinc lozenges that contain citric acid or the sweetener sorbitol as they seem to weaken the mineral's effectiveness.

Goldenseal stimulates the immune system and has germ-fighting compounds that can kill viruses. As soon as you begin to feel unwell, take goldenseal tablets or capsules for 5 days. Look for a product that contains the equivalent of 250-500mg of dried rhizome (root), which is the active ingredient.

Various studies have shown that vitamin C shortens the duration of a cold. Start taking 200mg of vitamin C 5 times a day, with food, as soon as you notice cold or flu symptoms. Fighting off colds and flu can rob your body of moisture.

Drink as much water as you can–8 or more 250ml glasses daily–to keep your mucous membranes moist and to help relieve dry eyes and other flu symptoms. Fluids also help to thin mucus, making it easier to blow out. Or drink plenty of mild herbal teas or diluted fruit juice.


Home remedies for colds

Drink elderflower tea. Put 2-5g dried flowers into a cup of boiling water to make an infusion. Leave to infuse for 5 to 10 minutes, then strain. Drink at least 3 cups a day.

Yarrow, ginger and peppermint are all effective teas for colds. Yarrow increases circulation to the surface of the skin, which promotes sweating and helps reduce a fever without suppressing the immune system. Ginger is warming, plus research confirms it has significant antibacterial action. Peppermint helps decongest blocked airways, helping you to breathe easier.

Andrographis has long been used in India's traditional system of medicine, Ayurveda, as a treatment for colds. In one study, where patients with colds were given either andrographis or a placebo (‘dummy’ pill), those taking the herb reported a significant reduction in symptoms of runny nose, sore throat and general aches and pains. Look for products containing between 500mg to 1.5g dried herb equivalent, which is considered to be an effective dose.

Astragalus is an ancient Chinese herb that stimulates the immune system and seems to be highly effective at fighting colds and flu. Take capsules or tablets according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

How to cure cold congestion

For a congestion-busting blast, buy fresh root ginger or horseradish, grate it and eat a small amount. (Or buy horseradish in a jar and eat as much as half a tablespoon). To avoid the risk of a stomach upset, try these remedies after a meal. Or make ginger tea.

A chest and back rub with a blend of essential oils helps open the sinuses, and soothes the aches and pains that often come with a cold or flu. Mix 20 drops of eucalyptus essential oil and 5 of peppermint with 125ml sweet almond oil in a small, capped bottle and shake vigorously. Apply a small amount to the chest and back and massage into the skin for warming relief.

Spike stock or soup with a dash of Tabasco sauce, dried chilli flakes or wasabi, the hot condiment (usually made from horseradish) eaten with sushi. All of these hot seasonings can increase a stock's decongestant power. In fact, adding them to any food can help you to breathe more freely.

Wear wet socks to bed. Believe it or not, this soggy strategy is a recognised naturopathic remedy that can help to ease a fever and clear congestion. It works by drawing blood to the feet, which dramatically increases blood circulation. (Blood stagnates in the areas of greatest congestion.) First warm your feet in hot water, then soak a thin pair of cotton socks in cold water, wring them out, and slip them on just before going to bed. Put a pair of dry wool socks over the wet ones. The wet socks should be warm and dry in the morning, and you should feel markedly better. (Caution: Only try this remedy in a reasonably well-heated room: wearing wet socks to bed would be unwise if the room was uncomfortably cold.)

Soak your feet in a mustard footbath. Add 1 tablespoon mustard powder per litre of hot water in a large bowl–an old baking dish is ideal. The mustard draws blood to your feet, which helps to relieve congestion.

An old-fashioned remedy for chest congestion is a mustard poultice. Grind 3 tablespoons mustard seeds to a powder, add this to around 100g flour or fine oats, then stir in just enough water to make a paste. Smooth a layer of petroleum jelly over your chest to protect the skin, then slap on the paste. The pungent aroma helps to unblock stuffy sinuses, and the heat improves blood circulation and eases congestion. Don't leave the poultice on for more than 15 minutes, however, or it may burn your skin.


Garlic treatments for colds

Egyptian pharaohs used garlic to fight infection, and a dose of neat garlic–a natural antiseptic–will fight those viruses. If you're feeling brave, hold a small clove of garlic in your mouth and breathe the fumes into your throat and lungs. If the flavour gets too strong as the clove softens, just chew it up quickly into smaller pieces and swallow with water.

You can also get a therapeutic dose of garlic in capsule form. Look for products standardised to contain allicin, the main active component. Take according to manufacturer's instructions. (Caution: Anyone taking medication for high blood pressure should talk to their doctor before taking large doses of garlic.) If you develop indigestion, wind or diarrhoea when taking garlic, then you may find that enteric-coated capsules help to reduce these unpleasant side effects.

Add fresh chopped garlic to chicken soup. As well as the active compounds in garlic that kill germs, chicken soup is effective at thinning mucus and stops certain white blood cells called neutrophils congregating and causing inflammation.


Colds with sore throats

If you have a sore throat, there are plenty of remedies you can use to soothe the symptoms. Here are a couple of tried and tested gargles:

  • For a sore throat, fill a 250ml glass with warm water, mix in a teaspoon of salt and gargle. The salt will soothe the pain.
  • The traditional sore throat gargle–a squeeze of lemon juice in a glass of warm water–is ideal because it creates an acidic environment hostile to bacteria and viruses. Add a spoonful of honey–especially manuka honey–to all hot drinks and gargles; it has antibacterial qualities and helps to soothe scratchy throats.


And a cold remedy that won’t work…

Some cold medicines contain an antihistamine, which works well for allergies, but does nothing for congestion caused by colds. Antihistamines can, in fact, make mucus thicker and therefore harder to blow out or cough up. If you're stuffed up, choose a simple decongestant. Otrivine and Ephedrine are effective decongestant nasal sprays, but don't use them for longer than 3 days; over-exposure can cause a rebound effect that makes your nose even stuffier.


The best cold cure: Prevention

  • Echinacea helps to prevent colds. Look for products standardised to contain the equivalent of 500mg to 1g dried root, and take according to manufacturer's instructions. Alternate it every 3 weeks with other immune system-boosting herbs, such as astragalus, goldenseal and pau d'arco.
  • When you blow your nose, you should do it gently. Otherwise you might create reverse pressure that can send the virus or bacteria up into your sinuses. To keep reverse pressure to a minimum, blow one nostril at a time.
  • Widen your circle of friends. In a study of more than 200 men and women, people who had strong social ties developed fewer colds.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water, try to avoid shaking hands with anyone with a cold, and if necessary carry a bottle of hand sanitiser gel which will kill any germs on your hands.
  • Lack of sleep and stress have been shown to lower your immune system–so practice relaxation techniques, and make sure you have plenty of rest. Making love also boosts your immune system.