Health Information

Complementary Therapies for the Common Cold

images for herbs in beverages article When a cold strikes, many people think of antibiotics to treat it. However, antibiotics are not effective against colds because colds are caused by viruses, and antibiotics are designed to fight bacteria, not viruses.

What about natural therapies? The evidence may still be inconclusive, but some of these natural therapies may help minimize the misery of a cold.

Consider these examples:

  • Pelargonium sidoides
  • Zinc
  • Echinacea
  • Andrographis
  • Vitamin C
  • Honey

Pelargonium Sidoides

How Does It Work?

Pelargonium sidoides (EPs) is a plant that grows in South Africa. It is traditionally used in southern Africa for treating respiratory problems. The root of the plant is what is used for treatment.

How Could It Help?

Liquid herbal solutions containing EPs may be effective in treating the common cold and improving symptoms. EPs may also reduce the severity of symptoms and shorten the duration of the cold.

How Do I Use It?

A typical adult dose of EPs extract is 30 drops three times daily. However, follow the instructions on the label for proper dosage.

Zinc

How Does It Work?

Zinc—in the form of zinc gluconate or zinc acetate—can be given as a nasal spray or as a lozenge to treat a cold. These forms of zinc release ions that directly inhibit viruses in the nose and throat.

How Could It Help?

Zinc may be effective in shortening the duration and severity of a cold, especially when taken within 24 hours of the start of the cold.

How Do I Use It?

For most purposes, zinc should be taken at the recommended daily requirements. The official United States dietary recommendations for daily intake of zinc are as follows:

  • Infants 0-6 months: 2 milligrams (mg)
  • Infants 7-12 months: 3 mg
  • Children 1-3 years: 3 mg
  • Children 4-8 years: 5 mg
  • Males 9-13 years: 8 mg
  • Males 14 years and older: 11 mg
  • Females 9-13 years: 8 mg
  • Females 14-18 years: 9 mg
  • Females 19 years and older: 8 mg
  • Pregnant women 18 years and younger: 13 mg
  • Pregnant women 19 years and older: 11 mg
  • Nursing women 18 years and younger: 14 mg
  • Nursing women 19 years and older: 12 mg

Echinacea

How Does It Work?

While echinacea has been promoted as a substance which temporarily stimulates the immune system, this action has not been proven.

There are three main species of echinacea:

  • Echinacea purpurea
  • E. angustifolia
  • E. pallida

E. purpurea is the most widely used, but the other two are also available. It is not clear if any one type is better than the others.

How Could It Help?

Echinacea has been the subject of much study, and results have been mixed. It may shorten the duration and severity of colds, especially when taken in combination with other complementary therapies. Taking echinacea regularly will not prevent colds.

How Do I Use It?

Echinacea is usually taken at the first sign of a cold and continued for 7-14 days. The three main types of echinacea can be used interchangeably. Depending on the form, dosages are:

  • Echinacea powdered extract: 300 mg, three times a day
  • Alcohol tincture (1:5): 3-4 ml, three times daily
  • Echinacea juice: 2-3 ml, three times daily
  • Whole dried root: 1-2 g, three times daily

Andrographis

How Does It Work?

Andrographis is a shrub found throughout India and other Asian countries. It is sometimes called Indian echinacea because it is believed to provide many of the same benefits. It is unclear how andrographis helps to prevent and treat colds, but it is thought to stimulate immunity.

How Could It Help?

Andrographis may reduce the symptoms of colds and prevent them as well.

How Do I Use It?

A typical dosage of andrographis is 400 mg three times a day. Andrographis is usually standardized to its content of andrographolide, typically 4%-6%.

Vitamin C

How Does It Work?

Vitamin C is a nutrient of great controversy. While some experts believe megadoses of this vitamin can keep you healthy, others feel it is overhyped. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

How Could It Help?

Although many people reach for vitamin C when a cold hits, it does not appear to reduce a cold's duration or severity.

How Do I Use It?

Vitamin C is available as a single dietary supplement. There is as much controversy about recommended levels as there is about the true health benefits of this vitamin. The Upper Limit (UL) established by the Food and Nutrition Board is:

Age Upper Limit
1-3 years 400 mg
4-8 years 650 mg
9-13 years 1,200 mg
14-18 years 1,800 mg
19+ years 2,000 mg

Honey

How Does It Work?

Honey has traditionally been used to treat everything from infected wounds to constipation. Honey is made up of mainly sugars called fructose and glucose. Its sugar concentration is high enough to kill microorganisms.

How Could It Help?

Honey may reduce coughing, especially at night.

How Do I Use It?

Consider taking 1-5 tablespoons several times daily. However, infants younger than 12 months should not eat honey.

Safety of Complementary Therapies

Few of the substances discussed here are subject to regulation by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This lack of standardization means that actual dosages may differ from those given on the bottle or package. While widely used, few of these agents have been subjected to the kinds of official testing that the FDA requires for pharmaceuticals. If you take these substances be sure to inform your doctor. Some complementary therapies may influence the effectiveness or safety of medical prescriptions taken at the same time.

Revision Information

  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

    http://nccam.nih.gov

  • American Herbal Products Association

    http://www.ahpa.org

  • Andrographis. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/biomedical-libraries/natural-alternative-treatments. Updated July 2012. Accessed September 12, 2013.

  • Bukutu C, Le C, Vohra S. Complementary , holistic, and integrative medicine: the common cold. Pediatr Rev. 2008 Dec;29(12):e66-71. Review. No abstract available.

  • Colds and flus. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/biomedical-libraries/natural-alternative-treatments. Updated July 2012. Accessed September 12, 2013.

  • Echinacea. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/biomedical-libraries/natural-alternative-treatments. Updated July 2012. Accessed September 12, 2013.

  • Upper respiratory infection. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/. Updated September 3, 2013. Accessed September 12, 2013.

  • Hemilä H, Chalker E, Douglas B. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD000980. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub3.

  • Honey. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/biomedical-libraries/natural-alternative-treatments. Updated July 2012. Accessed September 12, 2013.

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  • Lizogub VG, Riley DS, Heger M. Efficacy of a Pelargonium sidoides preparation in patients with the common cold: a randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Explore (NY). 2007 Nov-Dec;3(6):573-584.

  • Paul IM, Beiler J, McMonagle A, et al. Effect of honey, dextromethorphan, and no treatment on nocturnal cough and sleep quality for coughing children and their parents. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007 Dec;161(12):1140-1146.

  • Pelargonium sidoides. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/biomedical-libraries/natural-alternative-treatments. Updated July 2012. Accessed September 12, 2013.

  • Poolsup N, Suthisisang C, Prathanturarug S, Asawamekin A, Chanchareon U. Andrographis paniculata in the symptomatic treatment of uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infection: systematic review of randomized controlled trials. J Clin Pharm Ther. 2004 Feb;29(1):37-45.

  • Saxena RC, Singh R, Kumar P, et al. A randomized double blind placebo controlled clinical evaluation of extract of Andrographis paniculata (KalmCold) in patients with uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infection. Phytomedicine. 2010 Mar;17(3-4):178-185.

  • Singh M, Das RR. Zinc for the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD001364. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001364.pub3.

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  • Vitamin C. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/biomedical-libraries/natural-alternative-treatments. Updated July 2012. Accessed September 12, 2013.

  • Zinc. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/biomedical-libraries/natural-alternative-treatments. Updated July 2012. Accessed September 12, 2013.