What are the best natural remedies to beat a cold or cough?

Q: I've had a cold, chesty cough, swollen throat and no voice for three weeks. What are the best natural remedies to help?

A: Dr Sarah Jarvis replies:

There are over 200 viruses that cause coughs and colds, and the average adult catches four to five a year. Most last for 7-10 days, but it can be longer if you catch another before you've got over the first. Nonetheless, I usually recommend that people see their doctor if their symptoms have gone on for more than a two to three weeks.

There are dozens of 'natural' remedies sold to relieve symptoms, but the evidence for most of them is sketchy. The 'gold standard' as far as evidence is concerned for most doctors is the Cochrane review, which looks through all the studies relating to a given treatment and grades them according to the quality of the research. The big drawback for most natural remedies is a lack of high quality trials. However, Cochrane have looked at vitamin C and Echinacea.

For vitamin C they concluded, 'Regular supplementation trials have shown that vitamin C reduces the duration of colds, but this was not replicated in the few therapeutic trials that have been carried out.' They do go on to say that since vitamin C is cheap and relatively safe, it may be worth testing to see if it helps.

Echinacea is even more complicated because - who knew? - different preparations come from different species within the Echinacea family, different parts of the plant (roots vs above-ground parts) and different doses. Cochrane concludes that 'the overall evidence for clinically relevant treatment is weak', but that that 'it seems possible that some Echinacea products are more effective than a placebo for treating colds'.

Of course, while it may be too late for you at the moment, prevention is better than cure, and there is lots of research out there about how you can reduce your risk of coughs and colds:

Sleep - people who sleep less than seven hours a day may be up to three times more likely to get viral infections than those who regularly get a good night's sleep. The amount of sleep we need to keep us healthy varies between people, and changes with age, so this shouldn't be a hard and fast rule. But if you're burning the candle at both ends, you may be setting yourself up for the sniffles

Regular exercise - study after study has shown that regular exercise protects against coughs and colds, probably by boosting your immune system. Half an hour of aerobic exercise - the kind that gets you mildly out of puff - is ideal for general fitness. But just 20 minutes brisk walking a day may be enough to ward off colds

Noses breathe in as well as sneeze out - most cold viruses are spread through droplets in the air, coughed or sneezed out by other people. We breathe them in through our noses - and there's some evidence that in cold weather, the 'first line' immune defences in our nostrils are less adept at destroying germs. Avoid crowded areas where people are coughing if possible, and consider wearing a scarf over your nose in really cold weather to avoid breathing in germs.

Pack a hand sanitiser - another way for germs to spread is by picking them up on your hands from hard surfaces where they've landed. They can live there for up to four days. Regular handwashing really does make a difference, especially before you eat or prepare food. If you're out in a crowded place, such as using public transport, wear gloves to avoid germs on your hands - but wash your hands when you take them off, because you'll have to touch the outside of the gloves to remove them!

You are what you eat - eating a generally healthy diet, high in veg & fruit, low in junk food, can significantly cut your risk of viral infections. In particular, we're increasingly beginning to understand that sugar is even worse than empty calories with no nutritional value. It may actively promote inflammation, which may in part explain why it's so closely linked to developing conditions like type 2 diabetes and even rheumatoid arthritis. What's more, it can depress your immune system, leaving you open to more colds.

Make mine a small one - the festive season is round the corner, and alcohol intake almost always goes up. As well as leaving you feeling like death warmed up the next morning - and more prone to arguments with your nearest and dearest while you're under the influence - it can suppress your body's ability to fight off infections.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.