Natural Cold Remedies: 10 Fast & Healthy Options To Keep On Hand

Photo by Nadine Greeff / Stocksy

Ah, the dreaded common cold. With all the advances in medicine, you would think we would have figured out how to prevent this. Alas, we haven't. And many of us deal with the nagging symptoms of the common cold once or more per year. One of the problems is that the symptoms of a cold are caused by over 200 different viruses. The majority of colds are caused by rhinovirus, but many are by unidentifiable viruses, which make it impossible to completely prevent.

Common cold viruses infect the nose, throat, larynx, and sinuses, causing sore throat, hoarseness, cough, achiness, and congestion, but lack the severe symptoms of fever and extreme exhaustion that you get with the "flu" or influenza. You can "catch" a cold through respiratory droplets in the air but also from touching contaminated surfaces, where they can live for up to three hours outside the human body. We tend to catch more colds in the fall and winter months, when the virus is more contagious and replicates more easily.

In the United States, the direct and indirect costs of treating colds, including lost productivity, missed work, and doctors visits top $25 billion a year. So it's a big problem.

So is there any way to not get a cold?

Well, there are some obvious factors here. Children and infants get colds an average of six times a year, so schools, daycares, and playgrounds are risky places to be. However, many of us have kids, and we can't avoid these places. Also airline travel, where you are breathing in the same air as about 100 other souls for several hours can be risky. But again, that is sometimes unavoidable. Simple things such as basic hand washing, spraying down surfaces with a safe homemade disinfectant spray, and wearing a simple surgical mask can help prevent transmission to a certain extent. These physical barriers have been proved to help somewhat, but what can do you do if you get infected?

One of the issues with the cold is that it's our own immune reaction to the virus that can dictate the severity and duration of a cold. So here are some ways to get your body ready for cold season, shorten the virus's duration, and decrease symptoms naturally without taking any medications.

1. Get more zinc.

Probably the most studied supplement for treating a cold: Zinc's mechanism likely involves interfering with the replication of the virus. Several studies have shown that if taken within 48 hours of onset, it can shorten the duration. Zinc plays a strong role in improving our resistance to infection, and people with low dietary zinc intake may have lowered immunity.

Some people get some nausea taking zinc on an empty stomach, but taking zinc capsules (up to 15 to 30 mg daily with food) at the first symptoms for the cold is safe and effective. There are many forms of zinc, which vary in absorbability, but I like zinc monomethionine because it doesn't alter copper stores in the body. Loading up on zinc-rich foods in the winter can help as well; these include lean red meat, oysters, crab, lentils, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds.

2. Build up your gut health.

We know that the diversity and health of our gut microbiome significantly affect many aspects of our immune health. Multiple studies have shown that taking certain strains of probiotics can help prevent the onset of rhinovirus as well. The ones that have been studied include certain strains of Lactobacillus species as well as Bifidobacterium species. Results were even better when they were used in tandem.

In addition, probiotics only worked to reduce symptoms and duration of the common cold, so you will need to takes them daily for a few months before cold season. You want to pick a multi-strain formula from a reputable company. It's also important to eat naturally fermented foods that contain probiotic species of bacteria in them. These include foods like sauerkraut, kimchee, miso, and kefir.

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3. Boost your vitamin D stores.

One of the things that drops right around cold season is our natural exposure to broad-spectrum sunlight. UVB waves from the sun converts a substance known as cholecalciferol into active vitamin D. Many of us have very low levels of vitamin D in general, and in the winter months in the northern hemisphere, these numbers can plummet even further. Vitamin D is an immunomodulator and plays a role in preventing autoimmune disease. Trials have shown that having higher levels of vitamin D also can reduce our risk of getting the common cold. Because food sources of vitamin D are rare unless you drink supplemented foods like milk and fortified cereals, I recommend taking a supplement especially in the winter months. You need to aim for at least 4,000 IUs daily.

4. Rest and repeat.

When you get a cold. don't try to push on through. In order to clear a rhinovirus from our system, we need boatloads of rest. One of the reasons is that excess cortisol secretion (our big stress hormone) weakens our immunity and makes it hard to heal. In particular, this happens when we skimp on sleep and hit it too hard at the gym. A study looking at sleep habits found that bad sleep efficiency and shorter sleep duration in the weeks preceding an exposure to a rhinovirus were associated with lower resistance to illness.

If you have a cold, take a week off from heavy exercise. Instead, do something restorative like yoga, tai chi, or just simply walking. Aim for eight to 10 hours of sleep nightly, and take naps if you need to. Your body will heal faster will this type of TLC.

5. Turn to essential oils.

Instead of taking pharmaceutical medications that dry out your nasal membranes, make your sleepy, or cause a racing heart, there are many things in nature's arsenal that can help. Using essential oils is a great way to start feeling better in no time and with no significant side effects. For coughing, several studies have shown that eucalyptus oil is instrumental in calming irritated airways when used in a vaporizer. It's also a potent antimicrobial.

Peppermint oil along with rosemary oil has a similar ability to break up mucus and calm a nagging cough. These can also be vaporized or placed in a carrier oil and rubbed between the hands before breathing in. Lastly, frankincense, also known as boswellia, has significant anti-inflammatory activity on respiratory tissue. This can be taken as an oral tablet and also gives significant relief for aches and pains caused by the common cold.

Photo by @JariJ / iStock

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6. Try elderberry.

Another great natural way to stop a cold in its tracks and reduce coughing is by using elderberry. One study showed it significantly reduced the duration and severity of cold symptoms in intercontinental air travelers. In fact, elderberry syrup is such a great antiviral, it was used to reduce disease in Panama during the pandemic H1N1 avian flu epidemic. It's fairly easy to whip up a big batch of elderberry syrup for the season. However, if you don't have the time or patience for that, brands like Nature's Way Sambucus, Garden of Life, and Gaia Herbs all sell elderberry syrup or other products like lozenges and gummies for kids.

7. Call on medicinal mushrooms.

Chinese and American herbalists have long known the effectiveness of certain mushrooms' antiviral activity. By stimulating natural killer cells in the human immune system as well as decreasing viral replication, certain mushrooms come out on top when you are fighting a cold. Shiitake mushrooms are readily available and are delicious stir-fried and in soup. Maitake or "hen of the woods" are also delicious roasted and can be taken in pill and tincture form. Lastly reishi, which is a woody, mostly inedible mushroom, can also be found in tinctures, capsules, and teas.

8. Go the homeopathic route.

Homeopathy is a form of medicine stared in the late 18th century by Samuel Hahnemann and is used by over 200 million people worldwide every year. The remedies are based on the theory of "like cures like," and generally they are extreme dilutions of active natural substances. Although controversial, many people swear by the effectiveness of certain substances to relieve the many symptoms of colds. The National Center of Homeopathy has a list of commonly used remedies for cough and colds, but if you can't find a practitioner nearby to get these for you, the company Boiron has several formulations to try. Chestal cough formula, Cold calm, and Sinusalia are three to try out.

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9. Irrigate those nasal passages.

Neti pots have come a long way from being used primarily in ayurvedic medicine. Now used by many on a daily basis for chronic allergies and sinusitis, they can be a true godsend for anyone suffering from an acute cold. By irrigating the nasal passages and sinuses, you can wash out bacteria and viruses, hydrate swollen and irritated membranes, and also deliver soothing and natural remedies to the mucus membranes. The basic recipe is to use slightly tepid distilled water with sea salt and a pinch of baking soda. Irrigate both sides one to three times daily for as long as your symptoms last.

10. Feed your cold.

Chicken soup as a cure-all for the common cold may be an old wives' tale—and may not have any human studies—but there's a lot of anecdotal data on the ability of Grandma's "penicillin" to help fight off a cold. The combination of a hot liquid and a nutrient-packed soup probably is the source of effectiveness. Chicken soup must be made with real chicken bone broth, which delivers tons of collagen, amino acids, and minerals to help expedite healing. It also tastes really good and is easy to digest.

There are a lot of things you can do to both prevent and treat a cold. If you are prepared with some of these remedies at home, you may not find yourself sniffling and wandering into the 24-hour pharmacy this season.

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