Natural cures for the common cold?
(CNN) -- We've all felt the symptoms: sniffling, sneezing, coughing, congestion.
The average American suffers two to six colds a year, and as yet, there's no known cure. Nevertheless, pharmacies and stores that sell alternative medicine therapies are stocked with products claiming to be natural remedies for the common cold.
Herbal industry experts say Americans spend about $400 million each year on cold treatments like zinc and echinacea. But natural remedies such as these are only loosely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and are on the shelves despite conflicting evidence about whether they work.
Devona Beard got hit with the cold bug on a Tuesday. "I came down with a headache, sniffles, nasal congestion, nasal drip and sneezing," she explained. She took zinc lozenges, and felt better within a few days.
"Friday the symptoms kind of subsided. I felt better by Friday evening," Beard said. By the following Monday, Beard said she felt cured.
Her doctor, Dr. Ananda Prasad of Wayne State University, published a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine that looked at zinc lozenges and the common cold in 48 patients.
"We showed that by giving zinc lozenges, the duration of the cold was almost 50 percent decreased and severity was also decreased," Prasad said.
Prasad's study is just one of at least 10 careful studies evaluating zinc lozenges for the common cold. Half the studies showed zinc shortens the duration of cold symptoms; the other half showed it did not.
"In spite of the fact that these studies have been repeated and that the designs have been modified in a way that has tried to make the studies more valid, we continue to see this disparity in the final results of the study," said Dr. Ron Turner, a noted cold remedy researcher at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Turner said he has studied the same types of zinc as other researchers, with very similar protocols, and found no benefit.
He has also studied another natural cold treatment, the herb echinacea. Although his work found no benefit in echinacea, Turner points out the herb still may be effective.
"It's important to realize," he explains, "that echinacea is not just one thing. There are three difference species of echinacea which are used as herbal medicines. The echinacea can be prepared in a variety of different ways... . So it's impossible to say, based on a single study, echinacea does or doesn't work."
A third popular cold treatment, a zinc nasal spray called Zicam, showed very promising results in a study of 213 patients published in ENT, the Ear, Nose and Throat journal. Symptoms were reduced by as much as 75 percent.
Turner, however, called the study design flawed and cautioned that such dramatic results must be replicated.
Some manufacturers of herbal products say word of mouth helps treatments like these sell. If a product works wonders for one patient, he or she may pass the word.
But the fact that a single patient gets better after taking a particular treatment doesn't prove it had any real effect. "Everybody gets better from the common cold," Turner noted, even if they go untreated.
Some patients may feel better because they believe the treatment will work -- a phenomenon known as the placebo effect that's been shown to be very powerful.
For cold sufferers seeking a more proven treatment there is hope on the horizon. Early results on two potential remedies show they shorten the length of a cold by a day or two. But because they are considered drugs and not natural remedies, the FDA will require strong evidence they are safe and effective before they can be sold.
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