I once worked in an office that, I’m convinced, was actually a refrigerator. The people who worked inside that open-plan frozen concrete box were often sick, probably because a large contingent of them never washed their hands after they used the dead-silent restrooms. What they did do was load up on Emergen-C stirred into a glass of on-tap seltzer. Making your Emergen-C sparkling was the secret to taking the supplement above and beyond, and the coolest of us did it.
But we were not the healthiest people. Despite the rampant and possibly desperate belief that Emergen-C would keep us alive another day, it’s as-yet unclear that it actually does that. We continue to cling to so-called “old-wives’ tales” when it comes to preventing and treating coughs, colds, and flu; in fact, interest in complementary and alternative medicine, such as vitamins, herbal treatments, and acupuncture, has consistently climbed over the past few decades. But ultimately, we’re spending energy and money on prevention methods and treatments that, at best, don’t work, and in rare cases, could actually make you sicker.
“Supplements or vitamins rarely hurt,” Gary Freed, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor Medical School, told me. “What they mostly do is just waste people's money.”
Freed recently conducted a poll of over 2,000 parents, representative of the general United States population, and found that 70 percent of them employ folk strategies to help prevent their child from catching a cold. Such strategies include disallowing the child from going outside with wet hair, limiting outdoor time generally to avoid getting sick, or conversely, encouraging more time outside to prevent the child from getting sick. There’s very little evidence to recommend any of these methods of staying healthy, although if it’s cold enough your hair could freeze and chip off, which isn’t ideal.
Over 50 percent of them give their kids supplements and vitamins in the hopes of staving off a cold, and that’s despite ever-growing evidence that very few of these supplements can deliver on their promises. One of the most popular herbal supplements for immune-support, echinacea, is mixed at the very best; while a handful of studies show it can reduce your risk of catching a cold, several others, like a 2004 randomized controlled trial, were unable to replicate those earlier studies’ results; a 2018 review (with a very helpful infographic!) takes that language even further, stating that echinacea, as well as other popular supplements and herbal remedies like zinc, garlic, ginseng, eucalyptus oil, and honey, shows “no evidence of effect” for treating the common cold..
Even Vitamin C supplements, for example — the primary vitamin in the ever-popular (and, let’s be real, delicious) Super Orange Emergen-C — has not be shown to reduce the incidence of colds in most people, according to a 2013 meta-review of the evidence. The exception was those under severe physical duress, like skiers, marathon runners, and military training in extreme cold, who experienced fewer colds if they used Vitamin C supplements regularly before falling ill. But — with some caveats — vitamin C supplementation doesn’t appear to be harmful, either. If you like the taste of fizzy orange powder, go for it; just know that your $12.91 might have been spent in vain.
“As long as you consider the evidence, and adjust your expectations accordingly, there doesn’t appear to be much harm in reaching for some vitamin C when you feel a cold coming on,” writes Carolyn Bevan, a neuroimmunologist at Northwestern Medicine, for New York University’s online medical journal. “If, however, you want a more solid endorsement of vitamin C’s effect before heading to the drug store, you’ll just have to wait.”
“Detox baths,” in which the patient bathes in hot water with epsom salt, baking soda, ginger, essential oils, apple cider vinegar, and/or ground mustard seed are another cold treatment popular with wellness bloggers. Sites like Wellness Mama claim they can “remove toxins from the body,” and MindBodyGreen states that detox baths “facilitate the elimination of toxins which cleanse the liver, kidneys, and thyroid.” These baths supposedly conduct their magic by “opening the pores” and “ridding the body of toxins we pick up from pollution and processed foods.”
But I was unable to find any evidence that “detox baths” can either prevent the onset of a cold, or help relieve symptoms; even the inhalation of hot, humid air isn’t shown for sure to be a good treatment for your cold. In my own, anecdotal, totally unscientific experience, baths actually make me feel worse: lightheaded, dehydrated, and somehow even more achy than before I got in. It’s understandable why we all grasp at straws to feel better when we’re feeling terrible.
So what can you do if there’s a cold going around and you don’t want to catch it, or if you already have one and just want the misery to end?
Sadly, not much. The most important thing for prevention is practicing good hygiene, like washing your hands frequently, cleaning surfaces in your house, not touching your face, and “not being in the face of people who have colds themselves, like Uncle Edward or Aunt Freda who want to hug and kiss you,” said Freed. Treatment, he says, is “a whole different ball game, and it's not as clear cut as prevention is. It's unclear for some of [the treatment methods] what is a placebo effect and what is the actual effects of the medication.”
Some over-the-counter medications, like antihistamines, decongestants, or painkillers like Ibuprofen or Aspirin, can temporarily relieve symptoms, but be extremely careful when administering such remedies to children: multiplestudies have found that parents misunderstand the correct dosing for their kids. According to John Snyder, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, over 7,000 kids under 12 end up in hospitals every year because of unintended consequences of over-the-counter cough and cold medications.
One inconclusive (but promising and honestly delightful) treatment method is eating chicken soup. According to Northwestern Medicine, the hot soup dilates your blood vessels, which can help facilitate the movement of mucus; the salt and electrolytes from the broth helps you retain hydration; and it can even improve your body’s ability to fight off additional external contagions. And the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center notes that not only is the soup extremely nutritious and hydrating, but it’s also soothing on a sore throat and easy to digest.
Until the common cold is eradicated, or at least until we have more, better research on the subject, the best thing to do is wash your hands and hope no one sneezes on you. I think one researcher, looking at the impact of zinc on the common cold in 1998, put it best:
So what should clinicians do? What is the truth? Eastern mystics and subatomic physicists doubt the existence of a unified truth, arguing that truth is a relative term that depends on the circumstances of the observer and the observed and on the question being asked. Those of us steeped in Aristotelian thought believe that truth exists, waiting to be discerned. While there has been great lay publicity surrounding this issue and the heralding of zinc as a long-eluded panacea, the scientific evidence is still mixed.