Do These Alternative Cold Remedies Actually Work?

Experts weigh in on which ones are worth a shot.

Hot tea for colds, pills  handkerchiefs and thermometer
JovanmandicGetty Images

They say there’s no cure for the common cold, but walk though any drug store and you’ll see plenty of products trying to convince you otherwise. Antihistamines and pain relievers aren't your only options though. There's an array of homeopathic remedies — products containing diluted amounts of minerals and ingredients — stocking the shelves. But do they really work? Experts weigh in on the effectiveness of the most popular treatments.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
1 Airborne
airborne cold remedy
Amazon Prime

Available as tablets, powder, and chewables, this purported immune-system booster encountered trouble in 2008 when the company was sued for falsely claiming that it prevented colds. Airborne eventually settled the class-action lawsuit, reports agreeing to change its promise to “helps support your immune system.”

So is it worth a try? “It’s essentially a multi-vitamin with some herbal supplements,” says Yael Halaas, M.D., an ear, nose, and throat doctor in New York City. Meaning it doesn’t contain any magic cold-busting ingredients, but it also won't do much harm. "If you eat well, take vitamins, and get sleep you’ll likely be in good shape [either way]," says , M.D., an otolaryngologist practicing in New York City.

2 Emergen-C
emergen-c cold remedy
Amazon Prime

Experts are mixed on the effectiveness of this vitamin drink mix, which claims to contain 24 nutrients, including 1,000 mg of vitamin C. show that vitamin C has no effect, while others suggest it can reduce the severity and duration of a cold, says , M.D., a board-certified doctor of internal medicine in Atlanta. Keep in mind that 1,000 mg of vitamin C is well above the recommended daily dosage from the (NIH). While that's not dangerous every once in awhile, avoid taking it long-term, Dr. Adamson Fryhofer says — too much of the nutrient can cause stomach pain and diarrhea.

3 Cold-EEZE
Cold-EEZE Cold Remedy
Amazon Prime

By including zinc gluconate in its formula, Cold-EEZE claims to make colds go away faster. And it really works: "There is evidence that when you use zinc in lozenge or spray form, which work topically by coating the throat, it can work to shorten the length and severity of colds," says Frederick Southwick, M.D., chief of Infectious Diseases at the University of Florida. A 2003 study published in the even found that spray zinc gluconate reduced the symptomatic period of a cold from 6 to 4.3 days when used within 24 to 48 hours of the first signs of illness.

Just don't pop zinc in pill form, Dr. Southwick warns. “Zinc is not recommended to be used preventatively; only take it at the first sign or symptom of a cold," he says.

4 Echinacea
echinacea cold remedy
Amazon Prime

Long touted for its, an echinacea supplement may seem like an obvious choice when a cold's coming on. But Dr. Southwick says it may not be worth your money: Two studies, one from the and another from the , found that when it comes to treating the common cold, echinacea isn't much better than a placebo.

That said, past studies have found echinacea to be helpful. It's tough to truly know, since products can contain different concentrations of the herb and they could come from different parts of the plant — the flower, stem, or root — making it really difficult to compare study results, the reports. Since the herb doesn't cause problems for most, it wouldn't hurt to give it a try. Just talk with your doctor before starting any supplement, as it could interact with other medications.

5 Zicam
zicam spray cold remedy
Amazon Prime

Zicam encountered major problems with the FDA when, in 2009, some of its products were (that was permanent in some cases). The ones in question — Cold Remedy Nasal Gel, Cold Remedy Nasal Swabs, and Cold Remedy Swabs, Kids Size — were quickly pulled from shelves. But the company's current remedies (throat lozenges, oral mist sprays) release zinc gluconate directly onto the throat, which "may be beneficial because, like other zinc products, they are expected to interfere with the binding of the rhinovirus," Dr. Southwick says. Translation: they help prevent the common cold virus (which accounts for about 50% of colds) from setting up shop.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Women's Health