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Winter-proof the Natural Way

Dr. Sarah Penney
16 January 2016
Winter-proof the Natural Way - Fighting The Common Cold

by: Sarah Penney, ND

Winter-proof the Natural Way - Fighting The Common Cold


An old adage taunts us with the fact that for years medicine has struggled to beat what we call the ‘common cold’ with mild success at best, but boy have we ever tried. Walk into a drugstore any time of the year and you will find shelves stocked with nostalgic cherry tasting syrups, pills to relieve symptoms and keep you awake, others help you sleep, all of which are often rotated in a 24 hour period by the modern day adult with a common cold. A cold is the name we have lovingly given to the uncomfortable collection of symptoms brought to you by an upper respiratory tract infection caused by a range of viruses. Routinely these infections burden us with a runny nose, congestion, soreness of the throat, coughing and sneezing, or low energy. Sometimes lumped into this list are symptoms that should actually be attributed to a flu virus including fever, chills, muscle aches, nausea/vomiting or digestive changes.

The viruses that cause the common cold are most often classified as rhinoviruses – a category of viruses that has over 100 subtypes. Another subtype called respiratory syncytial viruses are responsible for the majority of infections in children. Other types can cause cold like symptoms but can be more serious, but most often a common cold follows this pattern: up to 4 days of worsening, followed by 1-2 of steady symptoms, and then another 4 days of improvement. Dramatic improvement or resolution is generally experienced in the majority of cases by 10 days. An infected individual is most contagious during the first few days of this infection – transmitting it to others through airborne viruses launched during a sneeze or cough, or through direct exposure of others to infected secretions through shared surfaces or physical contact. Infections viruses can survive on surfaces like door handles or elevator buttons for up to 6 hours, while survival on clothes is limited to 45 minutes and hands limited to 20 minutes. [1]

As desperate as we are to find solutions once these viruses start to affect us, effective options are often few and far between. Most of the cocktails in the drugstores are at best moderately effective in truly relieving symptoms, and many are now known to be unsafe in children. Below you will find a breakdown of some of the evidence behind a few popular natural prevention strategies.


If you have ever tried this rich aromatic drop of intense flavor (to put it nicely) – you will be holding your breath to hear whether it was worth it or not. There are several different types of oregano that vary in their medicinal properties, likely depending on the concentration of active ingredients in the oil of each plant. Oregano oil is made from a concentrated solution of the essential oils that give this herb it’s well known taste and smell, consequently producing quite a punch of taste and flavor. It has been used traditionally to treat a wide range of health conditions through capsules, culinary use, topical application or the oil itself including various respiratory infections, skin infections and stomach infections. It does act as a strong antimicrobial in vitro (when studies are done in petri dishes), but may be selective concerning the specific viruses it is able to combat. The antimicrobial action of this oil is largely due to a compound called carvacrol. [2] Only a few human studies investigating the effect of oregano oil on respiratory tract infections have been conducted. Research suggests that while oregano oil may have an antimicrobial effect when it comes into contact with viruses, there is no evidence that it stimulates immune function or helps the body fight in infection. Oregano oil may actually better be used in a steam inhalation format or topical application during infection for this reason.

Vitamin C Vitamin C

If you have tried anything to treat a cold in the way of natural health products – it has probably been vitamin C. The sunshine vitamin has been promoted in high doses for the treatment of colds as early as the 1970s, and lots of research has followed to determine when it should be used and if it works. Some of the review trials that have been published analyzing all the available research have included over 11000 participants in their results! What studies show is that Vitamin C seems to decease severity and duration of colds by about 18% in kids when taken every day, but only decreases severity and duration by 8% in adults. When taken every day by extreme athletes however (those training for marathons or exercising heavily) it can decrease the incidence of colds up to 50%. [3] Vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin, which means that your body will only absorb what it needs and the rest will be excreted. For this reason, higher dosages of vitamin C can lead to digestive upset (gas, loose stool, cramps, nausea). Try breaking up your daily dosage or taking it with food if this is a problem for you!

The daily recommended intake of Vitamin C is 75mg, and Health Canada suggests that anyone who smokes or is exposed to second hand smoke have an extra 35mg per day. This is because smoking cigarettes depletes the body of Vitamin C [4] The recommended dosage of Vitamin C to help prevent the common cold is 1-2g per day, which is available in powder form or tablet form often called ascorbic acid. Many companies claim their products are superior but no form or product of vitamin C has been demonstrated as better absorbed by the body compared to another. Those who have a history of kidney stones are advised to limit intake of supplemental vitamin C as it may increase excretion of urinary oxylate and uric acid, which could increase the risk of future stones.

Garlic Garlic

This herb has long been known to have antimicrobial effects in laboratory studies. It has traditionally been included in many homemade cold and flu remedies, and recently science has identified an active ingredient called allicin that gives it both its antimicrobial effect and pungent taste. Allicin is actually produced by enzymes that are released several minutes after a garlic clove is cut or crushed. Unfortunately, allicin is deactivated by heat so if you are going to try treating or preventing a cold with garlic it should be raw. If you do want to eat it raw and want to dampen the taste, try adding chopped garlic to a salad dressing or infuse it in an olive oil. Luckily garlic is also available in capsule form, but it is important to make sure the product you choose indicates a certain level of allicin in it for effectiveness.

Not much research has been done on the use of fresh garlic to prevent or treat the common cold, although one trial has suggested that taking a daily garlic supplement can reduce the chance of getting a cold by about 2/3 [5]. Potential side effects of taking garlic include a skin rash and body odor. A newer type of garlic called ‘aged garlic’ is making it’s way onto the shelves of healthfood stores, and research suggests that it may help support white blood cell function thus boosting the body’s immune response [6]. Although the levels of allicin are low in aged garlic, this process might enhance other antioxidant properties in these supplements that help support the body in fighting infections.

Chicken Soup Chicken Soup

Well as it turns out mom was right – chicken soup really does seem to help the common cold! This old remedy has been put to the test and passed with flying colors. It seems that chicken soup may help the body in a few ways. The steam and heat can help loosen secretions and mucous in the nasal passages and airways and encourage movement preventing the infection from progressing, and it has interestingly been shown more effective at this than hot water. [7] This may be in part due to the aromatic spices included in this dish’s traditional recipe. Chicken soup also seems to dampen the immune response to a viral infection by white blood cells called neutrophils. These cells are responsible for much of the inflammation and discomfort that result from a viral infection, and their inhibition lessens the resulting symptoms [8]. Different soups have even been pitted against each other to compare their cold-busting properties, and the fresh, home-made recipe wins almost every time.

No matter what your cold remedy of choice is, the most important thing to remember is not to use antibiotics unless recommended by a doctor. Antibiotics are a commonly requested treatment by patients booking medical visits to discuss cold symptoms, but antibiotics can only treat bacterial infections and viruses are what cause colds. Excessive prescription and overuse of antibiotics is leading to the development of resistance among certain bacteria, which means that medication can no longer be successfully used to treat these infections. Colds do have the potential however to progress into more serious infections like pneumonia in rare cases. If you are experiencing any shortness of breath or chest pain, fainting, severe pain when swallowing, a prolonged fever, a cough that lasts for 10-14 days or any other symptoms that are worsening and concerning you it is important to talk to your doctor to ensure further treatment is not needed.