Home Remedies for a Cold

March 05, 2019

Cold home remedies woman sick in bed

Home Treatments for the Common Cold and Cough from a Medical Perspective

It’s cold and flu season, and almost everyone has a family or "home remedy" for the common cold. Here are the top five best home remedies we gathered from our Denver Health employees, along with some less effective home remedies and some solid medical advice for how to treat a cold.

Top Five Home Remedies for a Cold

  • Warm a washcloth with eucalyptus oil

    Employee's advice: "If my nose is so stuffed up that no cold medicine can reduce the congestion, I use a trick my grandmother taught me. I moisten a clean washcloth with the hottest water that's comfortable, sprinkle six to eight drops of undiluted eucalyptus oil into the washcloth, bury my face in it and breathe in deeply through my nasal passages. I repeat this several times, adding a bit more oil and keeping the water almost hot enough to produce steam. It never fails to open up my nose and allow me to breathe more easily. Also, it smells great, and it's very soothing and comforting.”

    Doctor's comment: That is a great symptomatic treatment. Warm and humid air helps with a dry, sore throat and nose and will likely help loosen up secretions. The eucalyptus probably works in a similar way to menthol and may have some mild anesthetic properties. Please be careful with overuse to avoid irritation of the skin or mild burns.

  • Suck on chocolate to soothe coughs

    Employee's advice: “I learned this from my high school boyfriend, and it really works! I haven't used cough syrup since.”

    Doctor's comment: Hard candies and most lozenges work in the same way: they coat the throat and give temporary relief. The medical term for this is a demulcent. Personally, I’d prefer chocolate over a cough drop any day, but I always caution diabetic patients about the sugar content in any home remedy; it is often overlooked.


  • Make a slow cooked vegetable stew

    Employee's advice: “For roughly 12 years now, as a remedy for a cold or just feeling tired and rundown, I have been making a slow cooked, root vegetable stew. The basic contents are small potatoes, celery, turnip, rutabaga, parsnips, carrots, onion and garlic. Cut each of these items up to your preferred size, put them in a slow cooker with about four cups of water and four to six cubes of beef bouillon, salt to taste and let it cook for six to eight hours. If you prefer a little meat in your stew, you can always buy some precut stew meat from your local grocer. You can either eat the stew with the broth or just the vegetables by themselves. It’s simple, tastes good and you will be amazed at how well you feel the next day.”

    Doctor's comment: Sounds delicious! I would recommend that as well. I would personally add some meat.


  • Gargle with mouthwash and use a neti pot

    Employee's advice: “As soon as you feel the itchiness in your throat, gargle antiseptic mouthwash and use a neti pot. Repeat until symptoms subside.” 

    Doctor's comment: Studies have been done to compare lozenges vs. gargling with mouthwash and typically lozenges give a longer, short-term relief. There are really no downsides to doing this other than it is time-consuming and short-acting. Please make sure to use purified or previously boiled water with frequent neti pot use, and make sure the water is just above room temperature.


  • Drink herbal tea

    Employee's advice: “We make an herbal tea we call "sick tea" when family and friends have colds. I have been using the same recipe for more than 20 years, and it really helps with congestion and the pain associated with it. The tea includes ginger, peppermint, cinnamon, coriander and honey. The trick is to roast the coriander seeds before making the tea (they smell like Fruit Loops cereal when roasting). The ginger reduces inflammation and helps the coriander calm the stomach. The peppermint has natural menthols that help break up congestion. The cinnamon has both antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Finally, the honey soothes the throat. And it's delicious!”

    Doctor's comment: Honey is a great temporary relief as it coats the throat, and the peppermint may have some anesthetic properties. It is probably most effective if enjoyed under a blanket and by a fire.


Home Remedies for a Cold That Are Less Effective, Medically Speaking

  • Take vitamin C and zinc

    Employee's advice: "I take vitamin C – 1000 mg dosage daily – and two zinc lozenges to prevent replication of the cold virus."

    Doctor's comment: Despite general belief, there is no evidence that vitamin C prevents or treats respiratory viruses. There is some evidence that zinc can reduce chances of getting the cold, but it needs to be taken before symptoms appear. Intranasal zinc may cause anosmia (losing your ability to smell), so I typically recommend against intranasal zinc.


  • Use a Chinese anti-viral supplement

    Employee's advice: “Ban Lan Gen/Isatis Root is a Chinese traditional medicine anti-viral supplement. When taken at the first sign of a cold, it can stop or lessen symptoms. When I have taken it, colds are less severe and don't last as long. It comes as a tea or in capsules.” 

    Doctor's comment: Typically, I don’t prescribe antivirals for the common cold. That being said, if an over-the-counter medicine claims to have such properties, it may be reasonable to try it. I’m always a bit skeptical about products that claim to have properties that have not been studied formally.


  • Drink echinacea tea

    Employee's advice: “I drink Traditional Medicinal's Echinacea Plus tea to stop a cold.” 

    Doctor's comment: Unfortunately, this is another commonly-used, over-the-counter medicine that has no evidence to support it in more than 10 trials. I would recommend saving your money.


  • Drink whiskey

    Employee's advice: “I find a shot of whiskey and positive vibes can cure a cold.” 

    Doctor's comment: Yes, a shot of whiskey may help alleviate some of the discomfort from a cold but not directly though. Positive vibes are always a good idea.


Common Cold Treatment

My best doctor’s advice for treating a common cold generally focuses on symptomatic control and letting the cold run its course. A typical cold will last between three to 10 days in a previously healthy person.

  • Take ibuprofen or Tylenol for the sore throat and general discomfort typically associated with colds.
  • Get lots of rest.
  • Drink lots of fluids.
  • Taking a combination of antihistamines and decongestants are usually better than antihistamines alone for the nasal congestion and runny noses.
  • Nasal sprays typically aren’t very effective, so having tissues around is probably a better idea.


What are the key differences between a cold and the flu?

Many symptoms are similar but with the flu (influenza), it is common to develop a cough and fever within the first 48 hours of getting sick. Many patients who get the flu report having muscle aches and will feel wiped out compared to people afflicted with the common cold.

Many people do not receive medical care for the flu, but young children and babies, pregnant women and the elderly or people with complex medical conditions are at risk for complications from influenza and should be seen soon after the virus is suspected as antiviral treatment may be recommended. I recommend that all patients receive their yearly flu vaccine, wash their hands regularly and cover their mouths when sneezing and coughing to avoid transmitting the flu to others.