Research indicates that many of us are turning away from the over-the-counter medicines we grew up with and toward natural cold and flu remedies, like vitamin C, zinc, echinacea and others. The market for these supplements appears to be growing more than twice as fast as the market for over-the-counter cold and flu drugs. The incentive may be particularly strong now, given recent FDA reports about the ineffectiveness -- and even risks -- of over-the-counter cold and flu treatments in children.
Cold and flu viruses are not the same thing. The symptoms of flu are more severe; they include fever and body aches along with congestion. Flu can be dangerous, too; flu kills over 30,000 people a year. But because there's some overlap in symptoms, treatments are often lumped together.
Which Supplements Should You Consider as Cold and Flu Remedies?
To help guide you, here's a quick guide to the most important cold and flu supplements according to the experts. Note that some have been studied with colds and others with flu.
Vitamin C for Colds
On a preventive level, vitamin C seems to boost some aspects of the immune system, yet studies do not show that vitamin C helps prevent colds in most people. As a treatment, the evidence is somewhat better. Some studies show that vitamin C can reduce the duration of a cold by as much as 24 to 36 hours. However, other studies show that even very high doses -- 3 grams a day -- have no effect. Keep in mind that the high doses of vitamin C sometimes recommended for cold and flu can upset the stomach and even cause diarrhea particularly in children.
Echinacea for Colds
Once again, the evidence is mixed. While some studies do not show that echinacea works as a treatment, others show it can reduce the length and severity of colds by 10% to 30%. The confusion may stem from researchers testing different species of echinacea. Many experts are fairly sure that echinacea purpurea can help treat colds. Can echinacea also help prevent you from catching cold or flu viruses? Most studies say no.
Zinc for Colds
Laboratory studies show that zinc can fight the cold virus in a test tube. But it's not clear that zinc has the same effect on cold viruses in the human body. As a treatment, some studies show that lozenges with 9 to 24 milligrams of zinc can shorten the duration of a cold and ease symptoms. Other studies show no benefit, which may be partly due to the different formulations of zinc. Keep in mind that zinc should not be taken for long periods of time in order not to induce a copper deficiency in the body. So far, there isn't good evidence to support zinc lozenges for cold or flu prevention.
Garlic for Colds and Immunity
Like a number of other supplements, garlic seems to stimulate the immune system. Garlic may also help fight viruses. Also, there is some preliminary evidence that garlic may lower the risk of catching a cold. Garlic works best when consumed raw, either crushed, diced, or minced. Overcooking garlic may destroy the enzymes necessary for it to be effective.
Ginseng for Cold and Flu
While commonly used as a mild stimulant, the different ginseng species may also boost the immune system and help prevent or treat cold and flu. One species, panax ginseng, may also increase the protection offered by the flu vaccine.
Combination Supplements for Colds and Flu
Many alternative medicines packaged for cold and flu are combinations of some of the herbs and vitamins listed above -- typically echinacea, zinc, high doses of vitamin C, and other ingredients. While there's no particular reason to think that combination cold and flu products are more dangerous, they're much less likely to have been studied than the individual ingredients that they contain. You might be better off choosing the specific supplements in the dosages you want. However, so far, there's not enough evidence to say whether they help with cold or flu.
Supplements as Cold and Flu Remedies in Children
Using supplements in children can be a reasonable option -- provided you always check with a pediatrician first. Keep in mind that most alternative supplements have never been studied in children specifically. So when a child is really sick, you need to get him to a pediatrician. Nowadays, an annual flu vaccine is recommended for most children and adults. It's highly effective.
Cold and Flu: Other Natural Remedies
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