Colds and flu

Updated 01 April 2019

15 home and over-the-counter remedies for colds and flu

If you are unfortunate enough to be suffering from a cold or flu, the best you can do is manage the symptoms. Here are a few remedies that may help ease your discomfort.

The common cold and seasonal flu are both caused by viruses, and most of us are affected by one or the other at least once a year.

All sorts of remedies

People commonly have about two to four colds a year, although the range varies widely.

The symptoms mostly associated with colds are cough, sore throat, congestion and runny nose. Flu symptoms are roughly the same, but are more virulent and may include headache, muscle soreness and fever. (Pandemics like the Spanish, swine and avian flu are however in a different category.)

Although cold and flu symptoms seldom last for more than two weeks, they can be quite unpleasant and many people resort to all sorts of remedies to make the situation more bearable. 

An ounce of prevention

The best way to deal with colds and flu is to avoid getting them in the first place.  

You can get your yearly flu shot, which will protect you against certain flu strains, but in the case of colds there is no vaccine, and you will have to rely on preventive measures like staying away from viruses and building up a strong immune system.

However, if you are unfortunate enough to succumb to one of the many cold or flu viruses, there’s not much you can do except manage the symptoms while you wait for the disease to run its course.

An important thing to bear in mind is that antibiotics are useless against colds and flu. Antibiotics treat bacterial infections, and respiratory ailments like colds and flu are caused by viruses.

Antiviral treatment for flu is available (e.g. Tamiflu and Relenza), but according to Medscape it is only recommended for persons at higher risk for influenza complications (e.g. pneumonia), like children under two years of age, adults over 65, pregnant or postpartum women and residents of nursing homes and other chronic-care facilities.

To summarise, most cold and flu drugs and remedies address the symptoms, and not the cause (viruses) of the illness. They’re not a cure, but some of them can make you feel better and shorten the duration of your misery.   

Over-the-counter remedies

The following popular cold and flu remedies are available at your local pharmacy:

  • Zinc lozenges may ease symptoms and shorten the duration of colds and flu, but there’s not much scientific proof to support this claim. 
  • Decongestants relieve blocked noses by narrowing blood vessels and reducing blood flow to mucous membranes.  
  • Vitamin C is a very popular cold and flu remedy, but although it might boost your immunity, there’s no scientific evidence that it can reduce the duration or severity of colds or flu once you’re sick.
  • An expectorant can thin mucus and help to bring it up from your lungs, bronchi and trachea.
  • Antihistamines can be effective at reducing cold and flu symptoms like sneezing and a runny nose.
  • Pain relievers (analgesics) like aspirin and paracetamol are effective at bringing down fever and inflammation. (The generic term for aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid. This was developed and marketed by Bayer, a German pharmaceutical company, under the trade name "Bayer Aspirin".)
  • Cough syrups/suppressants may help with a cough, but most aren’t very effective. (When trying to suppress a cough, one should bear in mind that coughing can be part of the healing process.)

Home remedies

There are literally hundreds of home remedies for cold and flu symptoms – some more effective than others. Here are a few examples: 

  • Chicken soup is a great choice when you’re sick and may reduce symptoms of upper respiratory infections.
  • Stay hydrated. Colds and flu can leave you dehydrated, so be sure to drink enough fluids. Herbal teas, water and even fruit juices are good, but beware of too many caffeinated drinks as they can acts as diuretics.
  • Take it easy. Your body needs time to heal, so spend the day in bed if you feel the need. Leave the chores for another day.  
  • Steam it up. Relieve a stuffy nose by breathing in some steam from boiling water. Installing a humidifier in your bedroom can also help.
  • Use a neti pot to clear congestion in your nose and sinuses. Use dissolved salt and baking soda in sterilised or previously boiled water.   
  • Gargling with warm salt water can soothe and relieve a scratchy throat. Do this a few times a day.
  • A mentholated ointment like Vicks VapoRub applied under the nose or rubbed into the chest will release “vapours” that can help to clear sinuses and stuffy noses.
  • Lemons contain a lot of vitamin C which strengthens the body’s immune system and may help to fight the cold or flu virus in the body. It is also reported to relieve phlegm. Have lemon juice in a cup of warm water or drink homemade lemonade.

Read more:

Fight colds and flu

Exercise, meditation beat colds and flu

Flu: when to see a doctor


Ask the Expert

Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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