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Echinacea Won't Help Colds, So What Will?


Just when the winter cold season is upon us, out comes a study that says taking the herbal remedy echinacea will not significantly change the length or severity of the common cold. If echinacea won’t help colds, what other natural remedies will?

Some natural remedies may help fight colds

The study on echinacea, which was conducted by Bruce Barrett, MD, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and his colleagues, found that patients who did not know they were taking echinacea experienced cold symptoms for a mean of 6.34 days compared with 6.76 days in patients who knew they were receiving the herb. The researchers also did not see a significant difference between the two groups regarding severity of the symptoms.

The authors noted, however, that the minor difference between the two groups indicated “trends were in the direction of benefit, amounting to an average half-day reduction in the duration of a week-long cold,” which translates to about a 10 percent reduction in overall severity.

What else can health-conscious consumers take to fight colds? Some evidence points to probiotics. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study recently published in the European Journal of Nutrition reported on the effect of Lactobacillus plantarum and L. paracacei in 135 adults versus a placebo in 137 adults during a 12-week period.

The incidence of acquiring a cold was reduced from 67 percent in the control group to 55 percent in the probiotic group. Number of days with cold symptoms was 8.6 among controls and 6.2 in the probiotic group, while the total symptom score was 44.4 for controls and 33.6 for the probiotic group.

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Probiotics also help infants. Researchers at the University of Turku in Finland found that infants who took twice daily doses of probiotics Bifidobacterium animalis subsp lactis BB12 from age one month to eight months experience a significant reduction in colds and other respiratory infections.

Garlic is a popular cold remedy as well, although scientific support is weak. Only one study of five met the criteria for review by the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, which reported on 146 volunteers who took either 180 mg of a garlic supplement or placebo once daily for 12 weeks. There were 65 occurrences of the common cold among the placebo group and 24 in the garlic group.

Zinc has been analyzed in more than a dozen double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, and a March 2010 review published in Medical Hypotheses explains that ionic zinc is the active ingredient in zinc lozenges for colds. Slowly dissolving zinc lozenges in the mouth over 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours releases a sufficient amount (18 mg) of ionic zinc to reduce the length of the common cold by 6 to 7 days, which essentially eliminates the cold. Few zinc products on the market, however, contain ionic zinc.

When it comes to preventing the common cold, a recent report from the University of Michigan Medical Center notes “ethyl alcohol hand gel and plain soap and water should be encouraged, and antimicrobial soaps should be discouraged. Gargling with water and using nasal saline spray are also cost effective and supported by clinical evidence.”

Then there is vitamin C, which has lost favor in the fight against the common cold. One of the most recent reviews noted that while vitamin C is not effective in preventing the common cold in adults, regular vitamin C use may reduce the duration of cold symptoms in both adults and children, but it does not decrease the severity of symptoms.

Although vitamin C is not significantly effective for fighting the common cold, many people still take it. Echinacea proponents may do the same. As the authors of the University of Wisconsin-Madison study noted, “individual choices about whether to use echinacea to treat the common cold should be guided by personal health values and preferences, as well as by the limited evidence available.”

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Berggren A. European Journal of Nutrition 2010 Aug 28
Eby GA. Medical Hypotheses 2010 Mar; 74(3): 482-92
Heimer KA et al. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners 2009 May; 21(5): 295-300
Lissiman E et al. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009 Jul 8; (30:CD006206
Moyad MA. Urologic Nursing 2009 Nov-Dec; 29(6): 455-58