This piece was written while I was sick with a cold, which adds both authenticity and a certain simmering rage against viruses everywhere.
The common cold is one of the most ubiquitous human experiences imaginable. Caused by one of literally hundreds of viruses, a cold is something that most people on the planet will experience at least once a year. Colds cause more than 75 million attendances to doctors yearly in the US alone, which is quite a lot for infections that are usually pretty mild as far as disease goes.
The good thing about colds is that they are pretty self-limiting: this is a medical term that basically means they go away without treatment pretty quickly. As my GP likes to tell me:
“You’ve got a cold. If we treat it, it’ll be gone in a week. Otherwise, we can leave it alone and it’ll only take seven days”
But since colds are so ubiquitous — and uncomfortable! — we don’t really want to suffer through them. And while modern medicine doesn’t offer many answers, there are dozens of home recipes you can try to cure the disease.
Sadly, most of them don’t actually do much, if anything.
Here is a list of 7 home remedies for the common cold, and why there’s no good evidence that they work.
Garlic is one of the most common recommendations as a treatment for a cold. Maybe it’s because of the strong flavour, maybe because it scares vampires — whatever the reason, if you’re coughing and snotty, the first thing people will recommend is a good garlicky hit.
The evidence for garlic as a treatment for the common cold is pretty much non-existent. While some things have been tested extensively, there have been only a small number of studies looking at whether garlic can help with colds. However, they have pretty much all been negative, making it unlikely that this tangy ingredient does much except stink up your breath.
Next on the list is this spicy root. Ginger is common in traditional Chinese medicine as something that will “warm” you, making it central to the treatment of a disease that’s literally called a “cold”.
Also, it’s pretty good in tea.
Sadly, the evidence for ginger as a treatment for a cold is even more scant than that for garlic. There have been a few pre-clinical trials, but essentially we have no idea if it’s effective or not at all.
Many natural therapy websites extol the benefits of elderberry as a cold remedy, which is perhaps unsurprising given how tasty it is when added to a gin and tonic.
Unfortunately, elderberry is yet another case where there really isn’t any good evidence. There are a few studies that have looked at elderberry on cells in a lab, but apparently none that have actually demonstrated a benefit in living humans.
Turmeric is the bitter root that gives much of Indian food its brilliant colours, and is also proposed as the treatment to virtually any disease by its proponents.
I’ve written about turmeric before. While it might be a great way to improve the flavour of a curry, there’s currently no good evidence it helps in any disease at all. There may be benefits of a substance extracted from turmeric — curcumin — but even then the evidence isn’t great.
3. Gargling Salt Water
Another steadfast recommendation, the salt gargle is yet another treatment for the common cold that has sprung up from tradition but probably doesn’t do much at all for your health. Salt gargles probably don’t hurt, and there are some medical textbooks that recommend them for symptomatic relief, but there’s currently no good reason to believe that they will help with colds*.
Honey is a wonderful miracle of nature — delicious and sweet, keeps forever, goes great with everything from tea to toast.
Which means it must be helpful for disease, right?
Well, not really. Honey is definitely the most promising treatment on this list — everything else is either completely untested or has been tested and doesn’t work — but even then it doesn’t have great evidence. A very comprehensive systematic review in 2018 found that honey may reduce cough duration and severity in children a bit more than placebos, but most of the studies are industry-funded and the evidence isn’t great. There also isn’t any good evidence that it works in adults.
Echinacea has the distinction of being the most well-tested treatment on this list, with dozens of studies done testing whether it works. It’s also the most common of all of these remedies, with virtually every cold treatment containing at least a bit of echinacea extract.
So what has this research found?
A systematic review in 2013 combed through the literature to find every study looking at echinacea for treatment of the common cold. Overall, across 24 different studies, the researchers were unable to find a consistent clinical benefit. There were a few trials that showed some small improvements in duration, but generally the evidence showed that echinacea probably doesn’t help with the common cold at all.
The sad fact is that home remedies for colds are either pretty much entirely lacking in evidence or have been demonstrated to be ineffective. There are hundreds of other treatments — my personal placebo is lemon, ginger, and honey tea to be drunk while watching anime — which means that there might be an effective one out there, somewhere, but it seems fairly unlikely.
It’s also worth remembering that we do have some effective treatments for common cold symptoms and even duration. There are a number of over-the-counter medicines sold at pharmacies that are low-risk and can help with the symptoms of a cold, such as pseudoephedrine.
Overall, there probably aren’t many effective remedies for the common cold, but that’s also mostly ok. Remember: colds are usually self-limiting. You’ll feel rotten for a few days, but then the disease will run its course regardless of what you do.
If you’re worried about an infection it’s always best to see a doctor. Home remedies probably won’t hurt you, but the current best evidence suggests that they are at best placebos.
Bottom line? I’m still going to eat the chicken soup prescribed by my mother when I get sick.
It might not work, but it is delicious anyway.
*Note: There is some evidence, interestingly, for nasal irrigation with saline (saltwater) as a remedy for viral infections, but since it isn’t really a ‘home remedy’ I haven’t included it on the list.