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Do alternative medicines cure colds?

Chew on vitamin C? Brew echinacea tea? These may seem like natural remedies when you feel a cold coming on, but they may not wipe out your sneezes, sniffles, scratchy throat and cough.

Despite what you may have heard, there’s often little science to back up the healing claims of alternative cold treatments. Here’s a quick rundown of what researchers do know.

Zinc – Oral

Bottom line:

  • May reduce the length and severity of a cold if taken within 24 hours after symptoms start
  • May lower the number of colds in children if taken in low doses for at least five months

Side effects:

  • Can cause stomach upset
  • May interact with antibiotics and penicillamine, a drug used for rheumatoid arthritis

Zinc – Intranasal

Bottom line:

  • Never use intranasal zinc – it may cause you to permanently lose your sense of smell

Vitamin C

Bottom line:

  • May take the edge off cold symptoms if taken on a regular basis
  • Not proven to prevent colds
  • Not proven to shorten a cold if taken after symptoms start

Side effects:

  • Can cause diarrhea or nausea if taken in high doses

Echinacea

Bottom line:

  • Generally not proven to prevent or treat colds
  • Some very specific preparations may help treat colds in a few cases

Side effects:

  • Can cause allergic reactions

Probiotics

Bottom line:

  • Not proven to prevent or treat colds
  • Might lessen the risk for upper respiratory infections in a few cases

Side effects:

  • Long-term side effects unknown

Ongoing research into these and other alternative medicines may help clarify their usefulness. In the meantime, it’s best to go with the tried-and-true trio of rest, fluids and over-the-counter medications. Talk to your doctor about what is right for you.

Sources: American Lung Association; National Institutes of Health