Common cold remedies are certainly not hard to come by, from over-the-counter meds to old wives' tales. But with so many options out there, it’s easy to get confused about which are truly the best treatments for the common cold. And now, new research shows that an old standby, phenylephrine, doesn't actually work: In September 2023, the FDA determined phenylephrine, a key ingredient in over-the-counter decongestant pills, doesn’t actually work when taken as an oral pill because less than 1% of it makes it from your gut to your nose. So what does work? We've rounded up 6 fast-acting common cold remedies. Read on for the remedies that will help ease all of your symptoms.
Common cold remedies that work fast
Next time you start sniffling, sneezing or feeling tired and achy, try one of these natural strategies to shut down your worst symptoms — fast!
1. To ease congestion, take a deep breath
The mucous membranes lining your nasal passages and lungs release an anti-inflammatory, germ-killing compound called nitric oxide, which quickly eases painful sinus congestion, plus halts the growth of viruses in your airways. The catch? You need to be able to breathe through your nose to get high doses of nitric oxide circulating freely to those tissues. Thankfully, stepping outside and breathing in crisp winter air can help, since cool breezes encourage clogged airways to drain, allowing nitric oxide to flood into congested sinuses. That’s the word from Australian scientists, who say breathing in fresh air can provide relief in as little as five minutes, plus keep congestion at bay if you do it three times daily.
2. To soothe a sore throat, bite into sweet potatoes
Enjoying 3/4 cup of tasty, filling sweet potatoes could soothe a scratchy throat in as little as two minutes, and serving up this root veggie daily could halve your recovery time from even nasty viral infections, a Sri Lankan research review suggests. That’s because sweet potatoes boast rich stores of an orange pigment, beta-carotene, which reduces throat inflammation, calms irritated pain nerves and speeds healing of damaged and infected tissues. More good news: Experts say you can triple your absorption of beta-carotene by topping your sweet spuds with a dollop of butter or olive oil! (Click through for 11 baked sweet potato recipes.)
3. To sleep better, grab an extra blanket
Just sleeping soundly will trim up to eight days off your recovery time if you’re fighting a viral infection. But it’s hard to sleep deeply when you’re feeling stuffy, achy and ugh. To get the healing Zzzs that you need, top your usual bedding with another warm, cozy blanket. Investigators reporting in the journal Brain say when skin stays warm during the night, specialized nerves (thermoreceptors) signal your brain to double its production of sleep-deepening slow waves. And that can cut your risk of restless sleep and early awakenings, often from the very first night.
4. To end fatigue, try a head massage
A family of proteins, cytokines, that your immune system releases to help fight infections can also dampen central nervous system function, making you feel foggy, groggy and tired. But research out of the University of Michigan suggests massaging key acupressure points on your scalp prompts the release of fatigue-fighting hormones, endorphins, that can make you feel more clear-headed and alert within minutes, plus cut your risk of energy slumps by 56% you do it hourly. To do: Using firm pressure and small, circular motions, massage all along your hairline, paying extra attention to the base of your skull and the area behind your ears.
5. To ease body aches, enjoy a hot drink
The metabolic wastes that your immune system produces when it’s fighting an illness can make you feel stiff and achy all over. Fortunately, having “seconds” of your favorite brew (whether you love sipping coffee or tea) can tamp down those body miseries in as little as 30 minutes, plus cut your risk of achiness if you enjoy an extra cup daily while you’re recovering, suggests a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition. Thanks go to these brew’s rich stores of plant compounds, polyphenols and caffeine, which speed your liver’s breakdown of metabolic wastes, plus boost your pain threshold.
Bonus: Opt for roobios tea and nutrition experts Mira Calton, CN, and Jayson Calton, PhD, authors of The Micronutrient Miracle say you'll calm a cough, too. "This African red tea gets its rich hue from powerful polyphenols that accelerate the healing of the inflamed throat tissue that triggers coughing," they explain. "Plus, the steam from the hot drink instantly soothes irritation in the back of the throat. This remedy works so well, in fact, that many people find they don’t need over-the-counter products to calm hacking, and their cough is completely gone within 72 hours."
6. To calm a cough, reach for sugar
Coughing fits can be bothersome, embarrassing, and even downright painful. If you’re on-edge because you can feel trouble brewing, try swallowing a pinch of sugar, or swish a little sugar water around your mouth. Our brains are so fond of sweet flavors that just having sugar touch your taste buds prompts the release of calming, mood-steadying compounds called endogenous opioids. And endogenous opioids have a surprising side effect: they calm the cough reflex as effectively as over-the-counter cough-suppressing meds do, cutting coughing fits by as much as 50%.
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
For more cold and flu news, keep reading: