Nutrition Column – Alternative Remedies: Help for the Common Cold?

Achoo! It’s that time of year again. Everywhere you turn, someone is coughing or sneezing.

If you’re one of the unlucky ones coming down with or dealing with a common cold, you may be wondering how best to treat your symptoms. Are over-the-counter cold medications the only way to go, or do alternative remedies such as vitamin C, echinacea and zinc really help? Here’s what we’ve learned from studies on the subject.

Vitamin C: Vitamin C has long been touted for its ability to prevent and cure the common cold. Although these claims have been blown out of proportion, an adequate intake of vitamin C is necessary to help fight infections and keep the immune system healthy. Furthermore, some research shows that taking extra vitamin C at the onset of a cold may cause a mild antihistamine effect, possibly reducing the intensity of your symptoms and shortening the duration of the cold.

The recommended dietary allowance, or RDA, for vitamin C is 75 milligrams per day for women and 90 milligrams for men. Although no specific, magic dosage of vitamin C has been shown to be optimal for treating cold symptoms, megadoses – more than 2,000 mg per day – can actually do more harm than good. In some instances, taking large amounts of vitamin C can cause side effects such as nausea, abdominal cramps and diarrhea.

Echinacea: Over the past several years, echinacea has become one of the hottest herbal remedies in the United States. While little research has been done in the United States, a 2001 German study found echinacea was effective in alleviating symptoms more rapidly than placebos in patients with common colds. However, another recent German study published in the "American Journal of Medicine" concluded that treating patients with echinacea did not significantly decrease the incidence, duration or severity of colds and respiratory infections.

Echinacea appears to have few side effects when used by basically healthy people on an occasional, short-term basis. Since possible adverse effects from long-term use have not been studied, most sources recommend that echinacea only be taken when symptoms of a cold first appear and then only for a week or two. Because echinacea is an immune-system stimulant, people with autoimmune diseases like lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis should not take the herb. It is also not recommended for pregnant or lactating women or for people taking corticosteroids and other immunosuppressants.