Which cold remedies actually help to reduce symptoms?

Some days, it can seem like everyone around you is sick.

And should you start coughing, sneezing and sniffling yourself – life can be pretty miserable.

But before you reach for your favourite cold remedies, be aware, they’re not all created equal. While some do seem to have an effect, some haven’t been studied much, and many don’t appear to do much at all.

Here’s a look at common cold remedies, and whether they will actually help to alleviate your symptoms.

First of all, some bad news. There is no way to actually cure a cold.

“You can do things that make you feel better, but nothing cures it,” said Dr. Michael Rieder, who holds the CIHR/GSK chair in pediatric pharmacology at Western University.

There is, however, some research on ways to shorten its duration. The typical cold incubation period is between twelve hours and four days, Rieder said, and the cold itself usually lasts between seven and eleven days in most people.


Zinc might make that shorter, Reider said. “There are a couple of trials showing that if you are otherwise healthy and you get a cold, if you take zinc in the first 24 hours, it reduces duration.”

The evidence is mixed though. Jennifer Isenor, an associate professor in the school of pharmacy at Dalhousie University, is skeptical about zinc.

“Newer evidence actually doesn’t support it,” she said. A randomized controlled trial on zinc lozenges published in January 2020 found that zinc didn’t help to shorten a cold’s duration.

The evidence on most things that purport to shorten a cold is weak, Rieder said. “So the primary emphasis is really still on symptom control.”

Vitamin C

The evidence on whether Vitamin C can prevent colds, reduce their duration or help minimize symptoms isn’t great, Isenor said.

“It has not been shown to have benefit in the general population.”

“Even in megadoses, no one has actually shown that Vitamin C alone does very much in terms of reducing incidence. But there is a suggestion that if you give large doses, it might reduce the duration — there is some suggestion of that, although the data is not firm on that,” Rieder said.

Vitamin C has been talked about in relation to colds for a long time, he said, “and you know, no one’s ever shown that it works.”


The results on Echinacea are inconclusive, Rieder said. “There’s a couple of trials that suggest that Echinacea might reduce the total number of colds.”

Unfortunately, he said, it only seems to work if you’re taking it steadily for several months while healthy – not if you are already sick.

“It’s not like, when you get sick, take Echinacea,” he said. “By then the horse may have left the stable.”

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