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Popular Cold and Flu Remedies Put to the Test


Wonder or waste: Do these cold and flu treatments actually work?

By Michelle Konstantinovsky

While that first winter chill can be exhilarating, the inevitable sick days and sniffles that come along with it are not so thrilling. Plenty of over-the-counter remedies promise quick relief from cold and flu symptoms, but do any of these products actually work? Read on to discover which treatments work wonders and which are a waste of your hard-earned money.

Zicam® Cold Remedy

The claim: Zicam offers a line of homeopathic, over-the-counter products ranging from "Cold Remedy Chewables" to "Multi-Symptom Cold & Flu" liquids. According to their website, Zicam products reduce "the duration and severity of the common cold when taken at the first sign of cold symptoms." The site also lists several research studies which they claim prove the effectiveness of their products.

The truth: Despite the impressive claims, the products may not do much for your symptoms. "When all the evidence is considered, there is no conclusive benefit to patients from any of these remedies," said Steve Polevoi, MD, associate clinical professor of emergency medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Cost: Approximately $10-$12 for a pack of 25 chewables.



Vitamin C

The claim: Your mother didn't make up the notion that oranges boost your cold-fighting immunity. In 1970, Linus Pauling, PhD released a book titled Vitamin C and the Common Cold, which advocated taking 1,000mg of vitamin C daily to reduce the incidence of colds. Later revisions of the book encouraged even higher daily doses of the vitamin for "optimum" health.

The truth: Downing that gallon of orange juice may not do much good once you've got the sniffles. According to the Mayo Clinic, there is still not enough evidence to prove vitamin C is helpful in treating colds. However, some studies show that popping the supplement before the onset of symptoms could be a helpful way to shorten a cold's duration. And while not everyone can count on vitamin C to reliably crush their cold, a 2007 study found that certain groups of people, particularly those under heavy short-term physical stress, may benefit from taking it.

Cost: Approximately $10 - $20 a bottle.



The claim: Though the above information suggests scientists have not yet proven vitamin C's cold prevention powers, the makers of Airborne insist "additional dietary vitamin C is needed to modulate the high levels of stress hormones and preserve the levels of vitamin C necessary to maintain a healthy immune system." The supplement also contains a "special blend" of 16 vitamins, minerals and herbs, including zinc and Echinacea (more on those, below). Airborne's website claims "the key ingredients in Airborne products have been shown to support the immune system, as shown in scientific studies and medical journals."

The truth: A 2006 Good Morning America drugstore investigation found that despite the product's original cold prevention claims, it didn't do much to stave off symptoms. In 2008, the company paid $23.3 million to settle a class-action lawsuit for false advertising claims, and eventually removed the word "cold" from its packaging, opting instead to tout the product as an "immune support supplement." The jury is still out on whether or not the fizzy tablets will actually do much besides delightfully flavor your glass of water.

Cost: Approximately $6 for 10 tablets.



The claim: An essential mineral present in some foods (particularly oysters, red meat and poultry), and added to others, some experts believe that popping zinc supplements can enhance the chances of beating a cold.

The truth:
While you'll find the z-word in nearly every cold remedy on the shelves, there is no substantial evidence to prove its effectiveness. According to the Mayo Clinic, many zinc studies are flawed, and the highest quality randomized trials generally don't show any benefit. "All of these purported treatments for the common cold have been subject to varying degrees of scientific analysis, including randomized controlled trials," Dr. Polevoi said.

Cost: Approximately $5 - $10 a bottle.


Chicken soup

The claim: There's nothing quite as comforting as a bowl of steaming chicken soup when you're sick in bed. Besides the soothing heat on a scratchy throat, many believe the dish provides nutrition and hydration to ailing bodies.

The truth:
Believe it or not, the grandmother-approved remedy may, in fact, have some medicinal merit. According to the Mayo Clinic, chicken soup not only acts as an anti-inflammatory, but it temporarily speeds up the movement of mucus, potentially relieving some cold-related congestion. In a 1993 study, Dr. Stephen Rennard at the University of Nebraska Medical Center examined how chicken soup affected inflammation in the upper respiratory tract. Though he wasn't able to identify the exact ingredients that made the soup effective, he did report that several variations of the chicken soup recipe reduced inflammation.

But not all doctors agree that chicken is a necessary ingredient. "My own personal remedy - not to malign my mother's chicken soup - is hot and sour soup," said Ellen Weber, MD, professor of clinical emergency medicine at UCSF. Others experts believe the soup's comforting quality is all it takes to speed recovery.

Other experts concur. "Chicken soup is a satisfying comfort food that keeps you hydrated while providing protein during illness," said Randy Bergen, MD, pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek, California. "Anything that keeps you hydrated during this time is good for you."

Cost: Variable.

Neti pot

The claim: Originally used in Ayurvedic medicine, the neti pot has gained popularity in Western medicine as a method of nasal saline irrigation. By pouring a salt water solution into one nostril and allowing it to run out through the other, many claim the neti pot flushes out excess mucus and debris from the nose and sinuses while moistening the sinus passage which can help block germs from entering through the nose.

The truth: While it may be simple, nasal irrigation with the neti pot appears to be highly effective. A study published in the journal Canadian Family Physician called nasal irrigation "a simple, inexpensive treatment that relieves the symptoms of a variety of sinus and nasal conditions, reduces use of medical resources, and could help minimize antibiotic resistance." However some experts believe prevention is key when relying on the neti pot. "This could be a good preventive option as it keeps the nasal passages open while reducing infection," Dr. Bergen said. But, he added, it is better for preventing a cold than it is for treating people already infected.


Cost: Approximately $10 - $15.



The claim: Found in everything from tea to cough drops, this popular herb is thought to prevent or treat the symptoms associated with the common cold.

The truth: According to the Nation Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the study results are mixed on whether or not Echinacea is useful in preventing or treating infections of the upper respiratory tract. The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that in a review of 14 clinical trials, Echinacea reduced the odds of developing a cold by 58 percent and the duration of the cold by one to four days, but some experts dispute the findings. "There is evidence that using zinc and Echinacea as soon as symptoms begin can reduce the recovery time," said Dr. Bergen. "However, there is no data to prove that these remedies can be used for the prevention of the cold or flu viruses."

Cost: Approximately $5 - $15 per bottle.


Published: October 27, 2010

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