How This Little Herb Became a Tough Common Cold Remedy

Dr. Geoffrey Harris, MD

You can’t miss all the reports about how most over-the-counter cold medicines don’t really work. Research has also shown that vitamin C, Echinacea, zinc, Airborne, and most of the other popular remedies for colds don’t show any benefit for improving symptoms or shortening the course of a cold. When scientifically tested, most of the popular medicines and alternative treatments for the common cold show no benefit over placebo (a term used to describe an inert substance, such as a sugar pill, used as an alternative to a test medicine or compound in a study).

Unfortunately, many of the over-the-counter medications can have side-effects, and in some cases can cause more harm than good.

The good news is that there are multiple studies showing that Pelargonium sidoides, a South African geranium that has long been used in Zulu medicine, shows benefit in improving symptoms of upper respiratory infections caused by viruses and the common cold. Both the common cold and upper respiratory infections are typically caused by viruses, generally by a rhinovirus. In laboratory tests, Pelargonium sidoides has been shown to help stimulate the parts of the immune system that protect cells from viral infection. The herb is made from an extract from the roots of the Pelargonium sidoides plant and typically comes in a liquid form.

The newest and most exciting study of this herb looked at 207 adult patients from the Ukraine who had cold symptoms. The study participants received the herb or a placebo and were studied to see if the herb improved their symptoms or shortened their cold. The people who took 30 drops of the Pelargonium sidoides extract three times a day for 10 days had an improvement in cold-related symptoms (like nasal drainage, sore throat, congestion, cough, and headaches) and were more likely to be cured by the end of the 10 days. Over 78 percent of the group that received the herb was cured by ten days, whereas only 31 percent of the placebo group was cured after ten days. Furthermore, the group that received the herb missed less work.

The Pelargonium sidoides extract has also been found to be safe and well-tolerated in the groups of adults that took part in this study and the previous studies. At this time, this herb should not be used in children because there have not been any studies looking at the effectiveness or safety of this herb in people younger than 18 years old. The other important point for using this herb for colds or viral upper respiratory infections is that it needs to be started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. If started too late, the herb will be less effective, so it might be worth having this on hand before the next virus goes around.

The biggest problem with this herb? Finding it.

The preparation used in the study is only marketed in Europe under the name Umckaloabo, a combination of Zulu words. In the United States, a company called Nature’s Way makes a similar preparation under the name Umcka Coldcare. Due to the herb’s popularity as a common cold remedy, its presence in the herbal market will likely increase, but for now it isn’t easy to find.