Cold Remedies That Actually Work

Arguably the worst part about having a bad cold is knowing there are no meds that can make it go away. Letting the virus run its course is the only option. But browsing the drugstore aisles, you’ll find that there are endless cold remedies that claim to treat symptoms and help make the whole waiting-it-out thing a little less miserable. From pain relievers to cough medicine and decongestants, there’s a product claiming to fix just about everything. So how do you know what works?

Cold Remedies

Saline nasal spray

“It doesn’t decongest, per se, but it just clears out the nose temporarily,” Rohr says. A saline spray also helps improve dryness, which may prevent nosebleeds for those who tend to get them when they’re sick. Try Simply Saline Allergy & Sinus Adult Nasal Mist (walgreens.com, $6).

Cough syrup

Dextromethorphan is usually the active ingredient in OTC cough medications like Nyquil and Robitussin. “A lot of the cold remedies have that,” and it works, Rohr says. In many states, it’s available behind the counter to adults 18 and older. (It’s known to be abused recreationally, mostly among teens.) Some cough medications may also include guaifenesin, which is used to thin the mucous so that it’s easier to get out—whether through coughing or blowing your nose. These medications, like Mucinex, are called expectorants.

Cough drops

Throat lozenges and cough drops may help soothe a sore throat and calm a cough temporarily. Herbal ones like Ricola employ ingredients like thyme, peppermint, and sage, which are used in alternative medicine to decongest and temper cough. Drops with dextromethorphan are also available, and may work better.

Tea and soup

Chicken noodle soup and tea are go-to cold remedies because they can be extremely soothing, and their warmth can actually help speed up the flow of mucus through your nose. They’ll also help you stay hydrated. “When you have a cold and fever with that, you tend to get dehydrated, so replenishing your fluids will help,” Rohr says.

Humidifier

A humidifier can put some moisture into the air, helping soothe a bad cough so you can breathe (and sleep) easier. Choose a cool mist option over steam, the Mayo Clinic suggests, because it hasn’t been shown to help and can cause burns. And don’t forget to change the water daily and clean it regularly. Try Vicks EasyFill Cool Mist Humidifier (amazon.com, $60), or if you want to splurge, Stadler Form E-002 Eva Ultrasonic Humidifier (amazon.com, $200).

Rest

Though regular exercise helps keep your immune system running efficiently, resting your body is a really simple, indispensable way to give your body the time and energy it needs to fight off infection. Don’t underestimate the healing powers of a few good nights’ sleep.

Antihistamines

Some cold and flu products combine an antihistamine with a decongestant. “It tends to work better with both of them together,” Rohr says. Research mostly suggests antihistamines are not effective in treating the common cold, though some older antihistamines, like diphenhydramine and chlorpheniramine, have been shown to decrease the secretion of mucus and widen airways, according to Harvard Health.

Chest rubs

Rohr notes that there aren’t any scientific studies to say that these things work, but some people may get relief from them. As long as you don’t eat it or put it up your nose or in your eyes, using a chest rub like Vicks VapoRub isn’t going to hurt you. The main ingredient, menthol, doesn’t actually decongest or reduce nasal swelling, but creates a cooling sensation that basically tricks your brain into thinking you’re breathing through a clear nose. It also contains eucalyptus and thyme, both essential oils used traditionally to thin mucus and prevent cough.

Nasal decongestant sprays

These are nasal decongestants that you spray right into your nose. Rohr says they work, but she doesn’t recommend using them if you can avoid them. “The reason is it’ll work fine for about two to three days max, and then usually after that, you get an increase in the amount of congestion,” she says. This is called a rebound effect. If you need relief, she says it’s OK to use for two or three days, but then you should stop taking it before it starts to backfire.

Zinc lozenges

Zinc has been shown to reduce the length of a cold when taken in the first 24 hours that symptoms show up. It’s also been linked to fewer colds throughout the year when taken regularly. But, according to the Mayo Clinic, the studies aren’t convincing enough for widespread recommendations, and it’s still unclear what an effective dose should be. Rohr also warns that while zinc may shorten a cold’s duration, there are side effects that she doesn’t think are worth it.

Vitamin C

Most research suggests that loading up on vitamin C is pretty useless once you’re sick. But getting enough C on a regular basis can potentially shorten the duration of colds when you get them. Ditch the under-the-weather vitamin C binge, and just get a daily dose of C from your food. Even if it doesn’t help when you get sick, eating vitamin C-rich fruits is good for you regardless.