Myth busters | The truth about cold and flu remedies

Dr Davina Deniszczyc fills us in on whether vitamins, supplements and medicines can really help you avoid and recover from colds and flus.

The dripping nose, the headache, the throat ache, we've all been there. A cold can make you feel bad, the flu can make you feel much worse. But is there any way to avoid catching these dreaded illnesses, and are vitamins the miracle cure?

If you have a balanced diet it is unlikely you are deficient in any vitamins, except perhaps with the exception of vitamin D, so routinely taking vitamins isn’t generally recommended. There is some evidence, all be it poor quality, that taking vitamin c may prevent colds and may reduce the illness. Taking vitamin C on its own, in an low dose is unlikely to cause harm and is relatively cheap so it is worthwhile seeing if it helps you. The effects of vitamin c have been found to be particularly strong for people suffering from acute stress.

Zinc is very good in lab studies to kill the cold virus, but the evidence for taking is inconclusive and zinc in high doses can have bad side effects.

There is no cure for a cold

Paracetamol will help aches and pains and fever but it will not stop the cold symptoms. Cold symptoms although annoying could be seen as a good thing- it means your body’s immune system is fighting the infection well. There is no good evidence that cough medicine works and interestingly in clinical studies placebo (sugar pills) work really well. So if it’s safe, not expensive and you feel it helps you, stick with it, placebo can be as good as cure.

You should be wary of all in one medicines though. All in ones could be dangerous unless you read the packet and ingredients carefully as it’s easy to use different products and overdose. Most remedies aimed at children have very little evidence behind them.

So how do I avoid catching the cold or flu?

The virus is passed through droplet, this then passes to your mucus membranes and causes the infection, so kissing can transmit, as can touching an item that someone has coughed on and then touching your mouth/nose.

The main way to prevent colds is good, old-fashioned hand hygiene and avoiding people who are ill. Use tissues and cover your mouth when coughing and wash your hands with either soap of alcohol gel, especially after being in public places. Keeping the immune system strong with plenty of sleep, a balanced diet rich in colourful fruit and veg, moderate activity, and reduced alcohol in-take should also help.

If you're in an at-risk group you should consider taking the flu vaccine. We know uptake in at-risk groups under 65 are poor and the vaccine is safe and the best prevention we have for flu.

And what will make me better once I already have it?

When you have cold, keep hydrated, avoid stress if possible and rest. And take the recommended dose of paracetamol regularly rather than waiting for the headache and fever to get worse. Symptoms tend to get worse over two to three days, and tend to resolve by seven days on average.

Staying positive can be helped along by having long baths and getting lots of sleep.

Last updated Friday 20 October 2017

First published on Thursday 11 February 2016