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At-home cold and flu remedies may not be as helpful as we think

WPTZ Plattsburgh-Burlington logo WPTZ Plattsburgh-Burlington 9/21/2020
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When we feel a cold coming on, it's common to reach for an herbal remedy before heading to the doctor. But just how effective is honey, lemon, zinc or chicken soup in beating the dreaded cold and flu? We asked the experts:

1. Echinacea

Can echinacea reduce the severity of a cold?

A 2014 Cochrane review looked at evidence for the effectiveness of echinacea in preventing and treating the common cold, reviewing 24 controlled clinical trials. The review concluded that echinacea does not reduce the length of colds significantly but may offer weak benefits.

The verdict: "As there is no real risk in taking echinacea (other than side effects reported from continuous, preventative use), I would hesitate to say 'do not take' when some people may find this useful," said dietitian and British Dietetic Association spokesperson Aisling Pigott.

"Professionally, I would not advocate the use of echinacea as there is insufficient evidence. However, I wouldn't tell somebody to stop if they found it beneficial."

The most important recommendation for consumers and clinicians is a caution that echinacea products differ greatly and the majority of these products have not been tested in clinical trials.

2. Honey

Will honey soothe a sore throat?

A drink of honey mixed with lemon and hot water is a common go-to when it comes to soothing a sore throat and runny nose. Even many doctors recommend patients try using honey or cough medicines containing pelargonium, guaifenesin or dextromethorphan, which have some evidence of benefit for symptom relief.

The verdict: "Although there is insufficient evidence to support its effectiveness, who are we to argue with someone who finds something useful for them?" said Pigott. "I would always remind people that honey is high in sugar and calories, so as a regular addition to the diet, it may not be beneficial. Also, honey should never be given to children under one, due to the risk for botulism."

3. Zinc lozenges

Does zinc reduce the severity of colds and flu?

"There is some evidence that zinc reduces the duration of cold symptoms such as nasal congestion, sneezing, coughing and a sore, scratchy or hoarse throat," said dietitian Lauren McGuckin. "Zinc is an important nutrient for regulating immunity."

The verdict: "Zinc lozenges are likely to contain sugar and therefore can be detrimental to teeth as well as contributing unnecessary calories," said McGuckin. "However, zinc supplementation may be beneficial to individuals who aren't meeting dietary intakes."

4. Chicken soup

Can chicken soup cure the common cold?

"There is little evidence to suggest that chicken soup reduces the symptoms of a cold," said Pigott. "However, we know that protein and energy requirements increase during illness, while appetite and gastric functioning reduce. Therefore, based on that evidence, warming and nutritious food (i.e. chicken soup) may help restore energy during times of illness."

The verdict: "It is not a cure!" warned McGuckin. "However, as a warming, hearty, protein- and nutrient-rich comfort food, chicken soup is an ideal meal for someone who is feeling under the weather."

5. Garlic

Will garlic shorten the duration of the cold and flu?

A study from 2014 suggested garlic may prevent occurrences of the common cold, but more studies are required to validate this finding.

The verdict: "Garlic contains a compound called allicin, which has been shown to be beneficial for the immune system," said McGuckin. "However, the way in which garlic is processed can affect the potency of allicin. Chopped, diced, sliced raw garlic appears to have the greatest benefit."

6. Vitamin C

Can foods high in vitamin C treat the common cold?

Vitamin C is key to the immune system functioning, and there is evidence to suggest it may reduce the length of colds but not prevent them.

The verdict: "The sharpness of citrus can be helpful with relief from catarrh and congestion and taken with warm water and other ingredients, such as honey, can be very soothing, a key part of recovery," said dietitian and BDA spokesperson Amanda Squire.

"Cold symptom relief and illness recovery is generally about allowing your body to recover and fight the infection. An overall well-balanced and varied diet gives our bodies the best chance of maintaining a strong immune system."

Check out some natural steps you can take to prevent illness this season in the related video above.

READ MORE:At-home cold and flu remedies may not be as helpful as we think

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