Which natural cold remedies actually work?

Vitamin C, garlic, honey, lemon and ginger tea and even a whisky nightcap are all said to 'cure' a common cold – but what's the best way to soothe symptoms?

A woman with the flu sitting on a sofa with a blanket

When it comes to the common cold, prevention is better than cure. While it's no guarantee that you won't succumb to a sore throat, eating plenty of fruit and veg will ensure you're getting the protective nutrients to support the natural function of the immune system. You can give your body a further helping hand by topping up levels of vitamin E (oily fish, avocados, brazil nuts), zinc (wholewheat, oats, soya) and B vitamins (lean red meat, dairy, lentils) and eating a varied, balanced diet.

What do you do, however, if despite your best efforts, you still end up feeling under the weather? If you're loath to reach for the cough sweets and prefer a completely natural approach to banishing bugs, then read on for some of our favourite cold-quashing old wives' tales – some of which are more on-the-mark than you may expect.

Will vitamin C help get rid of a cold?

Slices of fresh orange on a blue background

Old wives' tale: Eating lots of vitamin C will cure a cold fast.

The facts: Vitamin C has often been cited as a good precaution against catching the common cold. However, studies sugget that its value is most relevant for people exposed to brief periods of intense physical stress such as marathon runners or those living in very cold environments. Many fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamin C, however, there is some evidence to suggest that a diet with too many calories and refined sugar can impair the immune system. Therefore, if you tend to reach for the orange juice to help you feel better, it's best to buy 100% (unsweetened) orange juice or blend your own.

Read more about essential vitamins and what they do and the health benefits of oranges.

Will honey, lemon and ginger help get rid of a cold?

Old wives' tale: Hot drinks with lots of honey, lemon and ginger will soothe a sore throat.

The facts: For those of us keen to keep our cold cures natural and delicious, a hot drink containing honey, lemon and ginger has to be top of the list. Thankfully there may be more to this than just optimism! Honey is a good throat soother – studies investigating respiratory infections in children with symptoms ranging from a hacking cough and runny nose to fever found that a single night-time dose of honey can have a small, but effective, influence on their cough and help them sleep better. It's important to remember that honey shouldn't be given to children younger than 12 months.

A perfect flavour pairing with honey, lemon is rich in vitamin C and protective bioflavonoids, especially in its skin, so it's worth using the zest. Although there are limited studies to suport its use a cold curer, lemon juice has other anti-bacterial properties. Ginger provides a lovely warming flavour to hot drinks and has been used for medicinal purposes throughout history. Used to soothe a wide array of ailments from nausea to the common cold, fever and sore throats, it's efficacy is all thanks to active compounds, including gingerols.

Read more about the health benefits of ginger and discover whether lemon water is really good for you.

Will garlic help get rid of a cold?

A garlic bulb split up on a table

Old wives' tale: Crush garlic into a glass of milk.

The facts: Yes, this really is as disgusting as it sounds and although generally considered quite an old-fashioned remedy, some still swear by it today. Garlic is thought to have anti-microbial properties that may help the immune system fight viral infections and it is packed with antioxidants. However, to date there is limited clinical evidence regarding the effects of garlic on preventing or treating the common cold. That said, one study found that supplementing with an aged garlic extract appeared to enhance immune cell function, which may reduce the severity of cold and flu symptoms. Always see your GP before taking food supplements.

If you want to try garlic as a cold remedy but don't fancy mixing it with milk, try our healthy recipes such as garlicky mushroom penne, herb & garlic pork with ratatouille, herb & garlic baked cod with romesco sauce & spinach or lemon & garlic roast chicken with charred broccoli & sweet potato mash.

Read more about the health benefits of garlic.

Will plenty of rest help get rid of a cold?

Old wives' tale: You should stay in bed for the duration of the cold.

The facts: If you have a fever or are experiencing fatigue, a deep cough or any kind of chest pain then rest, and lots of it, is probably the best option. However, with a common cold, when no fever is present, a little light exercise can actually help to support the immune system.

Don't go too far though. Heavy workouts have been shown to have the opposite effect and can slow down recovery. So enjoy some gentle exercise while keeping energy levels up with low-GI dinners such as crab-stuffed avocados, Italian-style beef stew or sweet potato dhal with curried vegetables.

Read more about what to eat for better sleep and discover how to workout at home.

Will onions help get rid of a cold?

An onion cut in half and into rings on a chopping board

Old wives' tale: Cut an onion in half and put one half in each sock (yes, really!)

The facts: This concept brings a whole new meaning to smelly feet! Many believe onions (and other members of the allium family) have medicinal properties and strangely, some still use this or similar methods today. To avoid the inevitable pong (and strange looks), simply reap the benefits by enjoying the vegetable in a healthy cannellini bean, cherry tomato & red onion salad, packed with three of your five-a-day.

Read more about the health benefits of onions.

Will a nightcap help get rid of a cold?

Old wives' tale: Pour yourself a 'medicinal' drink.

The facts: Whisky or brandy is said by some to, in very small amounts, have a positive effect on grown-up cold sufferers as it is thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect on mucous membranes and help reduce a fever. We're talking a dash of alcohol in a hot drink before bed, which may help to relieve symptoms temporarily, but fresh fruit and veg, comforting chicken soup and warm fruit cordials are always preferable.

The above should not be considered personal medical advice or instruction - if you feel unwell always consult your doctor.

Enjoyed this? Now read...

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This article was last reviewed on 6th November 2018 by Kerry Torrens.

Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Let us know your hints and tips for keeping those colds at bay. Leave a comment below...

Comments, questions and tips

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sandra james's picture
sandra james
23rd Apr, 2020
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18th Jan, 2018
The answer is - none of them. Best thing to do is maintain your normal life; if you are too tired - take a rest. If you sneezing and coughing stay at home. Take a generic pain reliever for any aches and pains. If you do take to your bed keep your fluid and food intake up. And enjoy your hot toddy. Although whisky is hardly natural is it? Boiled, mashed and distilled.
23rd Jun, 2014
I think the key themes boil down to how we talk to ourselves, how we respond to things, how we make meaning, who we spend time with, and how we make the most of what we’ve got. The other key thing is that happiness is dynamic and it’s not a static state. It’s about living, learning and growing, and rolling with the punches. I also think it’s important to think of happiness as a skill. Drive from happiness. For durable happiness, lead your happiness from the inside out. Soundcloud
14th Oct, 2013
please can you give advice for cooking for someone with chronic fatigue syndromme
Kerry Torrens's picture
Kerry Torrens
4th Jun, 2014
Hi there, thanks for your question. For those with CFS when you’re feeling well and energised aim to do a big cook – batch cooking and freezing in portions can help keep you nourished when your energy levels are low. Specifically aim to include the healthy omega-3 fats from the oily varieties of fish like salmon, trout and mackerel. A handful of unsalted nuts and seeds as a snack or added to meals can also provide important energising nutrients like the B group of vitamins and valuable minerals like iron and zinc. A recent study suggested that a small portion of dark, high cocoa content (85%) chocolate can be effective in reducing fatigue in those with CFS.
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18th Nov, 2013
My Grandma used to chop a large onion, cover it with water, and boil until almost all of the water had reduced, and you were left with a thick onion 'soup'. Put into a soup bowl with pepper and a great dollop of butter. Eat (hot) at bedtime, retire. Next morning cold symptoms did seem to have bated somewhat. One more night of the same should see it off.
5th Aug, 2013
I make elderberry rob every autumn. At the first sign of a cold, I make a hot drink with it by combining 1/4 elderberry rob with 3/4 boiling water. More often than not, the cold disappears overnight. Elderberries are said to boost the immune system, as well as being a rich source of vitamin C. The hot drink is not unlike mulled wine in taste. Recipe: 1.8 kg elderberries (on stem – but remove large stems) 2 5cm pieces of cinnamon 1 piece ginger root ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 1 teaspoon allspice berries 1 teaspoon cloves 275 ml water granulated sugar 1 small glass brandy (optional) Bring elderberries to boil with the water and the spices. Simmer for about 20 minutes, then turn off the heat and let it cool completely in the pan (overnight). Wearing gloves (unless you want your hands to be bright red for the next week!), pour some of the mixture into a colander lined with a cotton cloth and squeeze out all the juice into a clean pan. Remove the ball of dry mixture from the cloth and repeat with more mixture until you have finished the lot. Measure the liquid and pour back into the pan. For every 500 ml of liquid, add 225g granulated sugar. Bring to the boil and stir so that all the sugar is melted. Turn off the heat and when the mixture stops bubbling add a small glass of brandy at this stage, if using. Using a funnel, pour into hot sterilised bottles and seal. This will keep, unopened, for a year. Keep in fridge once opened. Makes about 1½ wine bottles of elderberry rob.