This is the ultimate list of over-the-counter drugstore superheroes, homeopathic cures, and all-natural remedies—all approved by docs and pharmacists.

By Dominique Michelle Astorino
November 19, 2019
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Chilly weather and shorter days lead to festivities and family time...but also cold and flu season. Don't just tough it out when the cold virus catches you off guard. There are plenty of options to alleviate your worst symptoms, from aches and pains to stubborn coughs.

Whether you like all-natural remedies or want to decimate the virus with the best multi-symptom relief your pharmacy offers, there are plenty of options you can pick up at CVS, Walgreens, Target, the grocery store, or have delivered via Amazon. Here, MDs, naturopathic and osteopathic doctors, and pharmacists share their take on the best approach to prevent and treat colds. You'll be back on your feet, at the office, and in the gym in no time. (See: Should You Work Out While Sick?)

  • Best Natural Cough Suppressant: Honey

  • Best OTC Cough Suppressant: Dextromethorphan

  • Best Multi-Symptom OTC Cold Medicine: CVS Health Non-Drowsy Daytime & Multi-Symptom Cold & Flu Relief Combo Pack
  • Best On-the-Go Defense: Emergen-C

  • Best Symptom Shortener: Elderberry Syrup

  • Best Natural Immune-Booster: Goop Perfect Attendance Elderberry Chews

  • Best Nasal Spray Decongestant: CVS Health Nasal Spray

  • Best Drinkable Symptom Relief: Theraflu PowerPods and Theraflu Hot Liquid Powders

  • Best Homeopathic Treatment: Oscillococcinum

  • Best Pain and Fever Relief: Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen

  • Best Non-Medicine Treatment: Humidifier

Best Natural Cough Suppressant: Honey

Amazon

Multiple doctors suggested honey as their favorite cold remedy. That's right! Non-medicated, straight-up-from-bees, HONEY.

Habib Sadeghi, D.O. agrees that honey is the move when it comes to cold treatment. ″Many people have used honey instead of over-the-counter (OTC) cough suppressants for years, swearing it works better," says Dr. Sadeghi. Research published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that honey works better than any OTC cough suppressant. In the study, children suffering from upper respiratory infections who received honey experienced greater relief of symptoms and better quality of sleep than those who received a honey-flavored OTC cough syrup.

In addition to being a cough suppressant, Dr. Sadeghi likes this treatment because "it's a healthy, whole food that contains antimicrobial properties that may help fight the infection itself, so it's not just treating symptoms. And, of course, it tastes good, too."

Pharmacist Peace Uche, Pharm.D, recommends honey as well. ″The common cold is self-limiting, meaning that the healthy body will clear it eventually without necessary treatment," says Uche. "My favorite OTC remedy for the common cold is hot water with lemon and honey. The fluids hydrate and soothe the sore throat and honey, in particular, reduces cough."

Any honey will do, but level-up the benefits by reaching for Manuka honey—supercharged honey from the Manuka plant in New Zealand, with antibacterial and antiviral properties. Naturopathic doctor Heather Tynan, N.D., at Evergreen Naturopathic suggests checking out Manuka Doctor 24+, specifically, as it's what she personally uses. "There are some rules of thumb when it comes to choosing manuka," she said. Anything with a high UMF (Unique Manuka Fatcor) or MGO (methylglyoxal)—both chemical markers part of the manuka honey grading system—will have medicinal benefits, she says. "Make sure to choose a genuine New Zealand brand whose products have been certified for their UMF/MGO activity." (Related: Are the Health Claims About Manuka Honey As Amazing As They Seem?)

Buy It, Manuka Doctor 24+, $20, amazon.com

Best OTC Cough Suppressant: Dextromethorphan

Amazon

Honey isn't cutting it for you? You can try an OTC cough suppressant as well—just talk to your pharmacist first, as it may interact with any medications you're taking. ″If you have a cough due to a common cold, use dextromethorphan," says Alex Luli, Pharm.D, a board-certified ambulatory care pharmacist and assistant clinical professor at the University of California San Diego. "Look for brand names like Delsym; it also comes in many dosage forms and is common in multi-ingredient products [like DayQuil]," says Luli. "I usually recommend single-ingredient products over multi-ingredient products because multi-ingredient products may provide extra medications that aren't necessary for the symptoms a patient is experiencing and just adds to the risk of side effects."

Data is mixed on how well dextromethorphan works for relieving cough, but it has a wide margin of safety, he says, meaning it's pretty low-risk. Just "avoid dextromethorphan if you're taking medications called monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAO-I) [antidepressants like Nardil and Parnate] as this could cause an interaction resulting in too much serotonin (a neurotransmitter in the brain)."

Best Multi-Symptom OTC Cold Medicine: CVS Health Multi-Symptom Cold & Flu Relief Combo Pack

CVS

When you want to kill lots of birds with one stone, this store-brand version of DayQuil and NyQuil is what you want. (Think: Affordable and effective!) ″Cold symptoms like fever, chills, sore throat, and aches respond well to OTC pain relievers like acetaminophen, a key ingredient in this multi-symptom combo pack," said Papatya Tankut, R.PH. and vice president of pharmacy affairs at CVS Health. "[The pack] also includes a cough suppressant and nasal decongestant for multi-symptom relief. Take a daytime pill for non-drowsy relief and a nighttime pill with doxylamine succinate to help you sleep better with a cold."

Being sick doesn't have to kill your wallet either. It's a good idea to ″go for cheap generics rather than expensive brand names," because they're just as effective and will save you money, says Bertie Bregman, M.D., founder of Qwell, a New York City-based online medical care service.

Best On-the-Go Defense: Emergen-C

CVS

″One of the most important things you can do when you're under the weather is to give your body enough fluids, electrolytes, and all-important vitamins and nutrients," said Tynan. Your body uses them in greater quantities when you're sick, and the extra dose helps you recover, she says. Emergen-C is great to have with you on your commute, in the office, or on a plane so you can quickly mix it with water and sip your way to symptom relief (and a fortified immune system). (Related: Does Emergen-C Actually Work?)

Best Symptom Shortener: Elderberry Syrup

Walgreens

Elderberry is a plant that has been used all over the world in different types of medicine, dating back to ancient Egypt (and perhaps earlier). It's natural ability to support the immune system is what led Hippocrates, the ″father of medicine," to call the elder tree his "medicine chest". The elder tree produces elderflower and then elderberry, also known as Sambucus.

″Try the anti-viral-slash-immune-supporting superstar: elderberry syrup," said Tynan. "Make on your own at home or choose a brand with as little extras (like fake colors or preservatives) added as possible. A great one is Black Elderberry Syrup by Gaia." (Buy It, $21; amazon.com)

"I'd recommend Sambucol elderberry syrup because elderberry is clinically proven to cut the duration of colds," agrees Walgreens pharmacy manager Danielle R. Plummer, Pharm.D. But she's emphatic that syrup is the way to go when you have a cold—not chews. ″Be careful that there are many variations of Sambucol products," she said. "If a patient has an active virus, then take the syrup, which has 3.8 grams of elderberry extract, not the homeopathic melts or preventive gummies. There are also formulations in lower strength for children and sugar-free for diabetics."

Best Natural Immune Booster: Goop Perfect Attendance Elderberry Chews

Goop

Truth time: I had the chance to try these earlier in the year, and they seriously helped prevent an oncoming cold while traveling. These candy-like chewables use elderberry extract (for all of the aforementioned reasons) to help curtail the onslaught of cold symptoms and fortify the immune system. The elderberry is backed up by a fermented yeast, which has been shown to help the immune system as well. They're seriously delicious to boot.

Best Nasal Spray Decongestant: CVS Health Nasal Spray

CVS

Why nasal spray? ″Nasal sprays are a great decongestant option for those who can't swallow pills or don't like cough syrups," says Tankut. This one, in particular, provides a whopping 12 hours of congestion relief, which makes your life significantly easier when fighting a cold virus. The active ingredient, Oxymetazoline HCl, is the same as you'd find in a brand-name decongestant like Afrin—but now you'll have more $$$ to spend on ordering ramen.

Best Drinkable Symptom Relief: Theraflu PowerPods

CVS

The K-cup style pods of Theraflu are kind of like a hot Emergen-C and a cold-and-flu tea mixed with your favorite multi-symptom relief medicine. Plus, you just pop it into your Keurig or single-serve coffee machine and boom: nectar of the cold-and-flu-relief gods. Plus, extra fluids and rest are v important while you're overcoming a cold, and the Theraflu pods and powders fit the bill, according to pharmacist Peter Van Zile, Pharm.D., R.Ph., medical affairs principal scientist at pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline Consumer Healthcare. (Related: Flu Symptoms Everyone Should Be Aware of as Flu Season Approaches)

″To help treat cold and flu symptoms, using an over-the-counter remedy like Theraflu hot liquid powders can provide relief while you recover," he said. If you don't have a machine to use the PowerPods, check out the powder mix and make yourself a hot cup of cold treatment.

Best Homeopathic Treatment: Oscillococcinum

Amazon

If you've traveled abroad (particularly in France) or visited a natural market, you've probably seen Oscillococcinum, which is made from wild duck heart and liver (so, vegans, skip ahead). It comes in little plastic vials containing tiny little pellets that dissolve under your tongue and can be found anywhere from a Parisian pharmacy to a natural market to Target. It's ″now available at most grocery stores in the pharmacy section,″ says Tynan. Though this is mostly used for the flu, it may seriously curb your cold symptoms and duration of your illness. It's best taken ″within 24 to 48 hours," of symptom onset for optimal results, but "if you've missed the window, it's still completely safe to try." This homeopathic remedy has been used for decades but has little clinical research to back it up. That said, a small study at Sloane Kettering reported that "Oscillococcinum probably reduces the duration of illness in patients presenting with influenza symptoms."

Best Pain and Fever Relief: Acetaminophen and Ibuprofen

CVS

″Must-haves are acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) for fever and sore throats," says pharmacist Vinny Polito, pharmacy director at Centura Health. ″Never take ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen (Aleve) on an empty stomach or you may end up with a stomach bleed." (Related: Is It Dangerous to Take Expired Medicine?)

Again, you don't need anything super fancy for a cold. ″Most new formulations of over-the-counter medicines are just re-brands of age-old cheap generic medications; look at the ingredients, not the brand name." Oh, and here's a pro tip from Polito: "The pharmacist and pharmacy student behind the counter get a lot of joy out of helping you find the right medicines for your symptoms—just ask us! It's free advice!"

Buy It, Ibuprofen, $4, cvs.com

Best Non-Medicine Treatment: Humidifier

Amazon

A humidifier might be your first line of defense before getting to the medicine counter. ″A humidifier or vaporizer adds moisture to the air you breathe to help moisten your airways and loosen mucus, soothing cold symptoms like congestion, cough, and sore throat," says Tankut. "For an easy alternative to a humidifier, boost a steamy hot shower with Lavender Scented Effervescent Vapor Tablets (Buy It, $5, cvs.com) for a similar soothing effect." You'd put one of these on the shower floor and let the steam from the hot water create a soothing vapor to inhale. Aromatherapy and cold-treatment in one. (Related: 5 Aromatherapy Benefits That Will Change Your Life)

Luli agreed that a humidifier is one of the best ways to treat cold symptoms before opting for medication. ″For most cough and cold symptoms, nonpharmacologic therapies may be beneficial and are relatively safe," said Luli. "These include non-medicated lozenges, humidifiers, and hydration. I almost always remind patients to at least give these interventions a go before trying medication."

Buy It, TaoTronics Humidifier, buy it, $65, amazon.com

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