Colds that hit late in the season can be especially nasty. This reader has really suffered:
Q. I have a terrible time with colds and flu symptoms all the time. No sooner do I get over one cold than I come down with another. Tests haven’t shown why I get sick so often. I eat well and sleep well and exercise regularly.
Because of high blood pressure I worry about taking over-the-counter cold remedies. I never know which ones are safe.
Do you have any herbal recommendations that might help my immune system ward off these infections and relieve my symptoms?
A. One Chinese herb, Andrographis paniculata (Kan Jang), has been tested in double-blind trials and found to shorten the duration of cold symptoms. Another, Astragalus, has a long tradition of use against colds.
Zinc has also been tested and found to shorten colds, though the results are somewhat confusing and conflicting.
Vitamin C has gotten bad press of late, but we still think there are data supporting Linus Pauling’s approach to the common cold. Here is a link to an article in the journal CMAJ (Feb. 18, 2014) that discusses vitamin C, zinc, probiotics and a number of other remedies for the common cold.
People’s Pharmacy Hypothesis About the Failures of Traditional Cold Studies:
One of the reasons health professionals often look askance at natural approaches to treating the common cold is that the data are not always consistent. We have a hypothesis to explain that. There are over 200 different viruses that cause the so-called common cold. What we are really talking about, of course, are upper respiratory tract infections. Although they have similarities, there is also a lot of variability from the symptoms produced by one virus when compared with another.
We have always thought it was short-sighted to assume that vitamin C might ward off complications of every single virus that causes an upper respiratory tract infection. Ditto for zinc or Chinese herbs. Sometimes zinc seems to work like a charm and other times it fails miserably. Perhaps the reason is not the remedy but rather the nature of the infection itself.
In other words, some viruses may be especially vulnerable to zinc. Other viruses may trigger symptoms that respond well to vitamin C. We are speculating, but we think this could be a plausible explanation for the tremendous variability people report in response to various home remedies.
You can learn more about a diversity of natural approaches to colds in Our Guide to Colds, Coughs and Flu. Some of the remedies that are mentioned tell how to make helpful ginger or thyme tea.
Beware OTC Treatments with Decongestants!
Watch out for oral decongestants in the ingredient list of any over-the-counter cold medicine. Drugs like phenylephrine or pseudoephedrine could make your blood pressure rise. They may also keep you awake at night, which would be counterproductive since sleep is a great way to boost your immunity.