8 Cold Remedies That Don’t Work

Personal Health

Winter is coming. No, not the dragon-infested, zombie apocalypse winter foretold in Game of Thrones. I’m talking about the real thing. After another record hot summer, we can once again look forward to puffy coats, hot chocolate, ski trips, snow boots—and drippy noses, stuffy heads, coughs, and sneezes. Cold season is upon us.

The common cold is caused by a virus, or more specifically, many different rhinoviruses, an infectious agent that lives very comfortably at temperatures around 91 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. That just happens to be the temperature inside your nose, which is a major entry point for rhinoviruses. The reason we get colds more often in the winter is twofold. One, cold weather lowers the body's defenses so that a rhinovirus infection that might be fought off by the immune system in summer can successfully overwhelm it in the winter. Two, we tend to hang out in close-quarter spaces in cold weather, creating more opportunities to share the rhinoviruses with others.

Despite valiant efforts, we have no cure for the common cold. Vaccines that might prevent it are difficult to formulate due to the fact that there are actually around 100 different ever-mutating rhinoviruses that can cause cold symptoms. No matter. An entire cold industry, in both the conventional and alternative medicine realms, has blossomed over the decades, making claims you should view as dubious at best. Where there is money to be made, snake oil is sure to follow. Wander down the aisle of your local pharmacy and you’ll find countless cold remedies, all promising to end your misery. Most won’t.

These products can make these claims because in 1976, Congress passed the Vitamin-Mineral Amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. The act, pushed through by Senator William Proxmire, assisted by intense lobbying from the supplement industry, basically removed vitamins, herbs and other “alternative” remedies from FDA oversight. The FDA could only intervene if the product was proven to be unsafe after its introduction to the market. The agency could not review the product prior, as it is able to do with other conventional drugs. With help from the followup Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994, written by senators Orrin Hatch and Tom Harkin, which further restricted the FDA and allowed these remedies to make unsubstantiated claims, the floodgates were opened. Today, the industry takes in over $30 billion in revenue, a solid chunk of which comes from cold remedies.

Here are eight cold “cures” that don’t cure.

1. Echinacea

Users of echinacea, a flowering plant, will unfailingly point to its long use by Native Americans as proof that it is an effective cold remedy. What they won’t tell you is that echinacea was used by Native Americans for lots of conditions, including snake bite, and it has never been clear that it was used specifically for respiratory illnesses. It was basically a panacea to try when you didn’t feel well. Moreover, Native American cultures, like most pre-scientific cultures, never subjected echinacea to close observation or any objective scrutiny, as is commonly performed in the modern scientific community. Just because something has been used for a long time doesn’t necessarily make it effective. (Bloodletting was done for thousands of years, for example.)

Echinacea was popularized in the late 19th century by a snake oil salesman names H.C.F. Meyer, not just as a cold remedy, but as an everything remedy, including cancer. He too pointed to the Native American connection as proof of its efficacy. Most doctors at the time were unimpressed, but he was able to convince a doctor by the name of King who helped popularize echinacea in the U.S. In the 1930s, a German doctor named Gerhard Madaus brought echinacea seeds to Europe and further spread the myth of its effectiveness in “boosting the immune system.” Interestingly enough, he didn’t even bring the strain of seed Native Americans used, echinacea augustifolia, but mistakenly brought echinacea purpurea, which has been the prevailing modern-day remedy.

Despite all the anecdotal testimony to the effectiveness of echinacea, and despite its popularity as evidenced by sales exceeding well over $125 million a year, it doesn’t work. Large, rigorous scientific studies have shown nothing more than a placebo effect at best.

2. Vitamin C

Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling popularized Vitamin C as a cure for the common cold. He also touted it as a treatment for cancer and a number of other illnesses. Credible studies have not supported the claims of Vitamin C enthusiasts, however. It doesn’t cure cancer, prevent colds, reduce cardiovascular disease, or prevent cataracts, as many claim.

Even alternative health guru Andrew Weil admits the benefits of C have been overstated. The human body can’t even handle much more than 200 mg of C a day. Anything in excess is just urinated out of the body. And too much C can actually facilitate kidney stones, diarrhea and upset stomach.

3. Anything labeled 'homeopathic'

Homeopathy, a so-called medical discipline, espouses that ingredients that cause symptoms which mimic disease symptoms can cure those symptoms when administered in tiny doses. Popular in the 19th century when medicine was primitive and disease poorly understood, homeopathy has made a comeback today due to its natural identity and lack of side effects. It also lacks any scientific evidence that it works. Moreover, the doses in homeopathic medicine have been so diluted there is literally no medicine in the medicine. Homeopathic products like Coldcalm, Umcka and Oscillococcinum are a waste of money.

4. Airborne

Initially marketed as a “miracle cold buster,” Airborne is an amalgam of vitamins and herbs that purports to afford protection from colds. In 2008, it settled a class action suit for over $23 million for advertising itself as a cold buster, and since then, it merely says it “helps support the immune system.” Also, in small print, “These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” David Schardt of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told Forbes, “Airborne is basically an overpriced, run-of-the-mill vitamin pill that’s been cleverly, but deceptively, marketed.”

5. Apple cider vinegar

Yes, there is research showing that apple cider vinegar has antibacterial properties, but as we discussed, viruses, not bacteria, cause colds. Besides there being no scientific evidence that it cures colds, ingesting too much apple cider vinegar, because of its very high acid content, can upset the stomach and give you a sore throat.

6. Zinc

There are a plethora of products on the shelves containing zinc, that come with claims of clinical testing showing that zinc shortens the duration of the common cold. And there was some evidence supporting that claim. However, the tests showed only a small improvement in the cold’s duration, from seven days to six days. Not exactly a world-shattering cure. Further, more rigorous studies have since brought the earlier testing into dispute.

Meanwhile, it has been shown that zinc can cause some unpleasant side effects. Zinc lozenges can cause nausea, and ingesting more than 40 mg of zinc a day can be toxic. Zicam nasal spray and Zicam nasal gel, two leading zinc cold products, were linked to a loss of a sense of smell. Enough people were experiencing the loss that Zicam took the products off the market for a period of time (they have since returned to the shelves). The FDA even issued a warning letter not to use the products.

7. Antibiotics

There are basically two kinds of disease-causing microbes, germs (or bacteria) and viruses. Antibiotics work great (or at least they used to) on germs. Antibiotics work not at all on viruses. Despite this fact, countless people—including, frighteningly enough, doctors—seek (or in the case of doctors, prescribe) antibiotics to fight off colds. Since, as we have discussed, a virus causes a cold, antibiotics have no effect on it. The reckless overuse of antibiotics—particularly among livestock at industrial factory farms—has resulted in strains of bacteria that are now resistant to antibiotics. Essentially the germs are evolving beyond the reach of antibiotics, creating the scary scenario where bacterial infections like tuberculosis and syphilis, which normally respond to antibiotic treatment, may no longer do so.

8. Whiskey

The mythic image of a cold sufferer, blanket wrapped around his shoulders, in front of the fireplace, sipping on a hot toddy, is a pleasing one. Sadly, whiskey won’t help your cold. Your body expends a lot of energy getting rid of alcohol in the system (it is, after all, a toxic substance, despite all its pleasures). The energy used is diverted from the energy that could be used to fight off your cold. That, and the fact that alcohol dehydrates you, which can worsen your cold, should give you pause when you are tempted to imbibe while sick.

What works?

So what does work for a cold? Not too much. Over-the-counter cold meds can help lessen the symptoms, but they won’t cure you. (Avoid cough syrups: they don't work. Try honey instead.) Drink lots of non-caffeinated fluids to avoid dehydration. And chicken soup! It won’t cure the cold, but it can help open the sinuses, provide valuable nutrition and even has anti-microbial properties.

In the end, the best cure is prevention. Keep your distance from cold sufferers when it makes sense, and most importantly, wash your hands often. We unconsciously touch our mouths, noses and eyes an average of 18 times an hour. Every time, we potentially introduce a cold virus. Washing your hands will minimize that risk.

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