Any of about 200 viruses can cause the common cold and bring on the all-too-familiar symptoms that can range from an annoying scratchy throat to a throbbing head cold that brings you to a halt. Cold viruses spread relatively easily from person to person and hit most people in the winter.

Many alternative therapists believe the symptoms of the common cold should not be suppressed. They are the body's way of fighting a cold virus and, therefore, should be encouraged to do their work. Alternative treatments hold promise to shorten the duration of a cold and maybe even prevent one.

Nutritional Therapy for the Common Cold

According to nutritional therapy, eating certain foods and taking supplements can mean the difference between catching a lot of colds and few colds, as well as between colds that drag on and colds that disappear quickly.

A sound diet does go a long way toward fostering a strong immune system that can stand up to cold viruses. This sound diet means cutting down on sugars, fats, and alcohol and loading up on fresh vegetables, whole grains, easy-to-digest proteins, and essential fatty acids. Milk and dairy products should also be eliminated from the diet, either during a cold or year-round. They can trigger the body's production of mucus, compounding the problems of a cold.

After a cold has started, large doses of vitamin C can ease the symptoms and may even shorten the sickness. Numerous studies have proved this effect, which is usually attributed to the vitamin's antioxidant properties. Whether vitamin C can actually prevent colds is still being debated.

Zinc may also speed up the recovery from a cold, perhaps by blocking viruses from multiplying. Several studies have illustrated this effect: A group of Texas researchers, for example, compared the effectiveness of zinc gluconate lozenges to a placebo. After seven days of treatment, 86 percent of the patients who took the zinc got rid of their cold symptoms. Less than half of the patients who took the placebo were symptom free.

A common prescription is to take high doses of vitamin C each day until the cold symptoms go away, with doses spaced out during the day so excess vitamin is not simply eliminated in the urine. (Check with your practitioner, however, as high doses of vitamin C can cause diarrhea.) Eating oranges is helpful, but stay away from juices that contain a lot of sugar.

H­erbal Medicine for the Common Cold

In the effort to stave off the common cold, herbs can be used to strengthen the body's immune system. When a cold virus has already taken hold, herbs can ease -- not mask -- a battery of symptoms: sore throat, stuffy nose, overproduction of mucus, fever, and other symptoms.

Echinacea (or purple coneflower) may perform two valuable functions for people with colds: weakening cold viruses and stimulating the body's defenses to work better. Taking this herb -- usually in the form of a tincture -- can shorten the duration of a cold. Goldenseal is often combined with echinacea in herbal cold treatments. It's also an immune-booster, and the herb may lessen mucus in the nose and throat as well.

Other immune-fortifying herbs include garlic, ginger, and astragalus. The list of herbs that can make cold symptoms bearable is quite long. Most of the following can be made into teas that can soothe symptoms:

  • chamomile
  • elder flowers
  • hyssop
  • peppermint
  • rose hips
  • yarrow
Traditional Chinese Medicine for the Common Cold

Traditional Chinese medicine attributes the common cold to causes that originate outside of the body -- the so-called external factors, such as wind and cold. Poor diets and too much stress are just two of the things that can knock out the body's resistance and make it vulnerable to these external factors. The factors involved then determine the specific cold symptoms a person will have. The therapies of traditional Chinese medicine work to restore the flow of the body's energy, or qi, and return yin and yang to harmony.

Herbal therapy in the traditional Chinese treatment of colds involves a mix of herbs such as lian qiao (forsythia) and jin yin (honeysuckle). These are usually given in the form of a decoction -- a concentrated extract. The herbs used depend on the factors causing the illness. For example, warming herbs are prescribed if the illness is caused by cold.

Traditional Chinese medicine sometimes employs acupuncture to replenish or disperse energy. Colds due to both wind and cold, for example, may respond to acupuncture at the points Dazhui (Du14), Fengchi (GB13), and Quchi (LI11).

Acupressure -- similar to acupuncture, except finger and hand pressure is used instead of needles -- may also be useful. Here's a sample acupressure treatment for colds that have symptoms of fever and headaches:

  • Wear loose clothing and sit in a comfortable position.
  • To find pressure point LI11, bend the right elbow. With your left thumb, apply firm pressure to the top of the elbow crease. (Use your other fingers on your left hand to cradle the elbow.)
  • Hold for one to two minutes.
  • Repeat on the left elbow.
  • Next, to find pressure point GB20, put both hands behind the head. Place your thumbs at the base of the skull on either side of the spine.
  • Tilt your head back slightly.
  • Apply pressure with the thumbs for about one minute.
Aromatherapy for the Common Cold

Aromatherapy holds that the essential oils of certain plants can gently relieve cold symptoms and may even help fight viruses. Commonly used oils include:

  • eucalyptus to clear breathing and ease a cough and fever
  • lavender to alleviate congestion, enhance sleep, and stimulate the immune system
  • hyssop to aid free breathing and induce sweating
  • peppermint to ease congestion, correct any digestive disturbances, and cleanse and cool the body
  • yarrow to reduce fever, promote sweating, and clear breathing passageways

Depending on the essential oil, it can be used alone or in combination with others. They are often mixed with steaming water and inhaled or combined with a massage oil and worked into the chest.

The following aromatherapy treatment can help bring up phlegm from the airways, making breathing easier:

  • Boil about eight cups of water.
  • Remove the pan from the stove top, and add three to four drops of essential eucalyptus oil.
  • Hold your head over the pan, and then create a tent over your head with a towel, trapping in the steam. (Let the water cool off if it's too hot.)
  • Inhale the vapors for no more than ten minutes.
Other Common Cold Therapies
  • Ayurvedic Medicine for the Common Cold -- Treatment usually involves a special diet (including lots of whole grains but no dairy products, for example) and herbs (such as cinnamon, ginger, or licorice).
  • Detoxification, Fasting, and Colon Therapy for the Common Cold -- Water and herbal tea fasts and juice diets, lasting only a couple of days, can be helpful.
  • Homeopathy for the Common Cold -- Specific remedies must be tailored to the individual, but common prescriptions include aconitum napellus, belladonna, euphrasia, and natrum muriaticum.
  • Hydrotherapy for the Common Cold -- Treatment may involve nasal flushing, steaming hot baths, and alternating hot and cold compresses, applied to the neck.
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