Natural cold and flu remedies: not to be sniffed at!

pharmacist with customer blowing his nose

Can herbal ingredients and formulas really help to shorten a cold? asks Carl Gibson

Herbal cough, cold and flu products have often been developed with natural, scientific and traditionally-backed ingredients to help shorten the duration and severity of a cold and to help relieve cold and flu symptoms.

Key ingredients like Echinacea, Garlic, Vitamin C, and Elderberry are supported by scientific evidence for reducing the duration and severity of symptoms of a cold, while secondary traditional actives like White Willow can assist with the cold symptoms of body aches, pain and fever.

Herbal products usually combine several complementary medicines in one formulation and this, in the herbal medicine context, refers to the concept of Synergy. One herb can enhance the effect of another given at the same time.

Herbal medicines have a long history of use, and are regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration as low risk medicines, often using milder claims than those predominantly reserved for the pharmaceutical arena.

Many well regarded, gold standard scientific & traditional international monographs on the use of herbal medicines guide complementary medicine sponsors to develop formulations.

Differences in bodies of evidence in research

There are certainly some challenges facing clinical research evidence for herbal medicines in complementary medicines, as opposed to drugs, in that there is a great heterogeneity amongst plant species, and part preparations in herbals, as opposed to homogeneity in monoactive chemical compounds in drug research. Therefore, the size of the body of evidence is limited.

Herbs grow in different parts of the world under various environmental conditions. There will also be variations in the manufacturing process of herbs which means differences in source material from batch to batch, plant parts used and extract methods. Overall this results in different levels of active constituents amongst the same species of herbs.

That’s why there are so many studies of Echinacea around the world that use different plant parts, extracts and species. This has made studies difficult to interpret, and has caused inconsistencies with the results, particularly for URTI (Upper Respiratory Tract Infections or common colds).

As always, it is also important to objectively review the body of research. A recent Cochrane Review provides a good example as to why. The Review, ‘Echinacea for preventing and treating the common cold’, details the great heterogeneity of Echinacea tested products, due to the inclusion of both Echinacea purpurea and angustifolia plant species, as well as varying plant parts and preparations (Karsch-Völk et al 2014):[i]

“These results have to be interpreted with caution, as the great heterogeneity of tested Echinacea preparations makes comparison and pooling of data methodologically questionable” (p.3)

Is there scientific evidence to support Echinacea in reducing the risk of cold?

The EMEA (European Medicines Agency) Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC), is highly regarded by the EU, and internationally, and states:[ii]

 “The HMPC conclusions on the short-term use of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) herb medicines to prevent and treat common cold are based on their ‘well established use’ in this indication. This means that there are bibliographic data providing scientific evidence of their effectiveness and safety when used in this way, covering a period of at least 10 years in the EU for example”.

Are Garlic and Vitamin C effective in reducing cold symptoms?[iii]

There have been hundreds of studies conducted on Garlic and Vitamin C and their use in reducing symptoms of a cold.

Garlic has been traditionally used for thousands of years!

Garlic contains many beneficial compounds. Highly antioxidant, it contains free-radical scavenging particles, as well as anti-inflammatory, immune-enhancing, antibacterial and antiviral properties.

Vitamin C is what you would call a ‘super nutrient’. Its main functions in the body range from collagen formation, to immunity support, antioxidant effect, iron absorption assistance, & wound healing and blood vessel function.

Where does White Willow fit into the picture?

White Willow is often placed in cold and flu products as a secondary active ingredient.

It is a traditional ingredient to assist with relief of body aches, fever and pain, often associated with a cold.

White willow comes from the willow tree (Salix species). The bark contains salicin and this is metabolized in the body to salicylic acid. This active metabolite causes an analgesic effect in the body.

However, White Willow contains more active constituents than salicin such as flavonoids and polyphenols that also contribute to its analgesic and anti-inflammatory effect (Stohs 2015).[iv]


Suppressing the symptoms of common cold and flu this winter season with typically common decongestants and analgesics may not be the only option…

Evidence-backed complementary medicines, such as those containing Echinacea, should be seriously considered, in that there is much more than meets the eye when it comes to scientifically-researched herbals and nutrients, which can work together and also provide additional, key supportive phytochemicals to help you get better sooner, this winter.



[iii] (Source Braun & Cohen, Herbs & Natural Supplements: An evidence-based guide Volume 2, 4th Ed. Elsevier Mosby 2015).


Carl Gibson is the CEO of Complementary Medicines Australia.

Previous Opioid pharmacotherapy: barriers to treatment
Next The week in review

NOTICE: It can sometimes take awhile for comment submissions to go through, please be patient.