Pros: Zinc is one natural cold remedy out of many that's garnering a good deal of market share; one brand of zinc-based nasal sprays, Zicam, has become the third best-selling cold remedy on store shelves. The belief is that zinc helps the immune system combat viruses, but the exact mechanism of how it works is unknown.
Cons: There's little evidence that zinc actually does anything, and you could be putting your sense of smell at risk if you prefer your zinc in spray or gel form. The Food and Drug Administration recalled three Zicam products—adult and kids'-size Zicam Cold Remedy Swabs and Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Gel—in June after more than 100 people reported losing their sense of smell after using the products (zinc taken orally in tablet form hasn't been found to carry any similar risks). And the 14 scientific studies that have been done on zinc haven't found that it's any more effective at treating or preventing colds than a placebo.
Pros: Hand washing is the easiest natural cold remedy, and it's 100 percent free (save the cost of soap and water). It's also extremely protective against contracting the flu, and while it may not help you once you're sick, it will prevent you from spreading infections to others. A study from a 2001 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that hand-washing education programs can cut the incidence of cold viruses by 45 percent.
Cons: Considering that hand washing protects against everything from colds to flu to foodborne illness, there aren't any cons to doing it, and doing it often. However, using the wrong kind of soap could expose you the unhealthy chemicals, add to toxins in the environment, and contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
This or that?
Go with…That. The sink. Washing your hands and keeping them away from your nose and eyes, where cold viruses commonly infiltrate your body, is the most effective treatment and prevention—combined with a heaping helping of patience and steely resolve. Colds go away in between seven and 10 days, usually, and science hasn't found that zinc or other over-the-counter treatments like echinacea do anything to speed that up. Even treatments that show promise don't make a huge difference. One study, for example, found that regular doses of vitamin C—the amount in a daily glass of OJ—can help reduce the length of a cold by about one day in adults and two days for kids. But taking vitamin C pills once you're already sick doesn't help.
Here's some credible advice to follow next time you're laid up with a cold:
• Stay home. So many people show up to work when they're sick that public health experts have given it a name: "presenteeism," the opposite of absenteeism. A study from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases found that 30 percent of workers felt pressured to work when sick, and that same percentage said they think they picked up the flu from a coworker. Another survey of human resources employees found that as many as 56 percent of workers at their companies showed up for work while sick. Stem the spread of germs by staying at home, at least for the first two to three days of your cold when you're most contagious. If missing work means a day without pay, ask a coworker to fill in; you may be able to repay the favor if he or she gets sick down the road.
• Try a seawater treatment.Saline nasal sprays can reduce stuffiness and congestions, but don't trigger the rebound effect—symptoms that get worse when you get off the medication—the way medicated nasal sprays can.
• Know the difference between a cold and the flu. With concern about swine flu running high these days, don't let every stuffy nose put you in a panic. Here are common symptoms of cold and flu, from the University of Virginia Health System:
Cold: low or no fever, an occasional headache, stuffy and runny nose, sneezing, mild hacking cough, slight aches and pains, mild fatigue, a sore throat, and normal energy levels.
Flu: high fever, a persistent headache, clear nose, occasional sneezing, a cough that becomes severe, severe aches and pains, several weeks of fatigue, occasional sore throat, and extreme exhaustion.