Consumer Reports: The truth about home remedies for colds

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If you're dealing with a cold, you might hope that a home remedy will help you feel better as you wait for the week or two it takes for the viral infection to subside. But which can you rely on — and which are probably worthless? Consumer Reports spoke to experts and examined the research to find out.

• Sample some chicken soup? Evidence suggests that the soup may ease your discomfort. The best-known research, from Nebraska pulmonologist Dr. Stephen Rennard found that chicken-vegetable soup inhibited the movement of white blood cells that trigger cold symptoms such as a stuffy nose.

Try it? Yes. "When your mucous membranes are inflamed, your nose can get crusty and dry," says infectious disease expert Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Soup helps loosen mucus so that you can expel it.

• Sip a hot drink? When the University of Cardiff's Common Cold Centre in Wales gave 30 cold sufferers drinks that were either hot or tepid, those who sipped hot beverages reported more relief from runny nose, coughing, chills and sneezing. Those results were probably due to a placebo effect, study authors say, but hot drinks do appear to have benefits for sore throats.

Try it? Sure. "With a little honey, hot tea can be particularly soothing to a sore throat," says Dr. Marvin M. Lipman, Consumer Reports' chief medical adviser.

Honey is not ideal

• Have honey for a cough? A 2014 review by the Cochrane Collaboration looked at three studies that compared honey with one or more of the following: the over-the-counter cough drugs dextromethorphan and diphenhydramine, no treatment and a placebo. Their conclusion? Honey was more effective at relieving cough than no treatment and placebo, and it might be slightly better than diphenhydramine at reducing cough frequency and severity.

Try it? Maybe. Coughing helps you get rid of excess mucus, so you don't want to stop it completely, and the reviewed studies involved only children. But if you're considering an over-the-counter cough treatment, note that the Cochrane Collaboration found little evidence that such drugs were effective, and the American Academy of Pediatrics says they don't work for young children and may pose a risk.

• Use a saltwater nasal rinse? In 2015, Cochrane researchers looked at five studies on the value of cleaning nasal passages with salt water. Just one found that doing so eased nasal secretion and stuffiness, and reduced decongestant use.

Try it? It might have some value, says Dr. Orly Avitzur, Consumer Reports' medical director, noting that the sensation can be strange. "I warn people it's like the feeling you get walking into a big wave. But you get used to it." And steer clear of over-the-counter products labeled "hypertonic"; some studies have found that those more concentrated solutions can irritate nasal passages. If you opt to use a neti pot (a vessel you fill with warm water and salt), use distilled or sterile water and clean it between uses.

• Pop a dietary supplement? Many supplements, including echinacea, ginseng, vitamin C and zinc, have been touted for cold prevention and symptom control. Research results on the effectiveness of all have been mixed.

Try it? Save your money. Supplements are not thoroughly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and as a result, researchers can't draw firm conclusions from data. You don't always know exactly what's in supplements, and some might interact with other medication you're taking. Avoid zinc-based nasal sprays altogether. The FDA says that they may permanently destroy your sense of smell.

To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org.


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