The jury's out on "feed a cold, starve a fever," but consensus says that eating soothing chicken soup can't hurt when you're battling a bug. Be selective, though, about what else you're putting in your body as you choose among the over-the-counter drugs and supplements that claim to be cures. Taken at the first signs of cold or flu, some touted remedies could cut your suffering from a typical seven to 10 days to a more tolerable four or five. Others, however, aren't worth their weight in Kleenex.
Give Your Body a Needed Boost
Your body's own immune system can usually fight off a cold or flu, so the age-old recommendation to get plenty of rest and fluids is what the doctors order when you're feeling sick, according to Paula Bergamini, M.D., a private-practice internist near Washington, D.C.
Even then, you may be able to do better than letting a virus run its natural course. Many people turn to zinc, vitamin C and echinacea to ratchet up their immune systems for battle.
- Zinc. Some research suggests that zinc can decrease symptoms' severity and duration by up to 50 percent, at least in adults, according to Robert Schwartz, M.D., chair of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Zinc in the form of concentrated Cold-Eeze-brand lozenges can deliver the important mineral directly to the virus's front door — your sore throat — and seems to shorten the lifespan of a cold, says nutritional biochemist Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., author of A Guide to Understanding Dietary Supplements (Haworth Press, 2003) and Health Professionals Guide to Dietary Supplements (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2005).
- Vitamin C. Studies are split on whether this popular vitamin actually helps to combat a cold. While Schwartz doesn't put much stock in this, Talbott says that 1,000 milligrams in a supplement three times daily could cut your sick days by half. But the experts do agree on this: You could pay a price in the form of diarrhea, constipation and other stomach-related problems if you take high doses for longer than a week.
- Echinacea. Some studies show the herb to be a worthwhile immune system stimulator, but other research, including a 2003 study in children with cold symptoms, points the other way. Either way, the alternative medicine "certainly hasn't been shown to be harmful," says the University of Miami's Schwartz. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, is conducting echinacea studies.
Seen the catchy TV ads for these two other cold and flu products? Airborne — the commercials say the remedy was "invented by a teacher who was sick of catching colds in class!" — is an herb combination containing the anti-virus triple-threat: zinc, echinacea and vitamin C. It's a logical choice when you're not feeling well, if you ask Talbott — not so for another product called Oscillococcinum, a homeopathic remedy that he believes has no scientific basis for effectiveness.
Helpful Not-So-Natural Options
To ease your suffering, you might want to turn to your tried-and-true nonprescription decongestant, antihistamine, cough suppressant or pain reliever, says internist Bergamini (no aspirin for the younger set — acetaminophen and ibuprofen offer safer alternatives). (See The Common Cold: An Inside Look.) If the flu is what you're up against, several antivirals, including Relenza and Tamiflu, are available. They require a prescription from your doctor, though, and can only work if you start taking them within 48 hours of getting the virus. (See What Can You Do to Fight the Flu?)
Even over-the-counter drugs and supplements can have risks, so follow the labeled instructions to the tee and consult with a doctor to ensure you stay safe.
An Ounce of Prevention
Even when you're feeling cold- and flu-free, you can take some preventive steps. For general health, taking a multivitamin every day is a good idea — it'll "keep your immune system humming," says Talbott. To prevent the flu, an annual shot or nasal-spray vaccine can go far on that front. (See The Flu Shot: Powerful Protection ... If You Can Get It! and Ten Ways to Avoid the Flu.) And the consensus is clear on two more stay-healthy facts: Antibiotics won't work to treat viruses, including those that cause colds and flu, and their needless use can be dangerous. And washing hands — often and well — helps keep germs at bay.