Does ginseng help prevent or treat the common cold?

Two different takes on that topic appear in the latest issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

On one hand, the journal contains a study showing fewer, shorter colds in Canadians who took ginseng pills daily for four months during flu season.

However, the study’s findings are questioned in a journal editorial.

Understanding Common Cold — Prevention

Ginseng Study

The ginseng study was conducted by researchers including Tapan Basu, PhD, of the Agricultural, Food, and Nutritional Sciences department at Canada’s University of Alberta. The study was funded by the ginseng pill’s manufacturer.

Participants were adults aged 18-65 living in Edmonton, Alberta. They all reported having at least two colds during the previous year but were otherwise basically healthy.

Participants were given capsules of North American ginseng or dummy pills (placebo). The ginseng pills were standardized to have 200 milligrams of freeze-dried ginseng extract per capsule.

Participants were told to take two pills daily for four months during the flu season of 2003-2004 and to rate their cold symptoms on a four-point scale during that season.

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Study’s Results

The ginseng group reportedly had fewer, milder, shorter colds.

For instance, one in 10 people in the ginseng group reported having two or more colds that winter, compared with about 23 percent of those taking the placebo.

Colds lasted about 11 days for the ginseng group and 16.5 days for the placebo group, the study shows. There was no difference between the groups in the use of additional medications such as anti-inflammatory drugs or antibiotics, according to the researchers.

Participants weren’t told which type of pill they had gotten. When asked by the researchers after the study, most people in both groups said they thought they had gotten the ginseng pills.

Both pills were generally well tolerated, write Basu and colleagues.

The study was funded by the ginseng pill’s maker, CV Technologies of Edmonton, Alberta. The company didn’t have any other role in the study, the journal states.

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Lingering Questions

The study relied on participants’ reports. It didn’t sort out who had a common cold and who had the flu.

Colds and flu aren’t the same. Both can feel miserable, but the flu actually sends thousands of people to the hospital and can even be fatal (the young, old, and ill are most vulnerable). Also, there are vaccines for the flu but not the common cold.

None of the study’s participants had had a flu vaccine. That makes it tough to tell if the results would apply to people who were immunized against the flu, notes editorialist Ronald Turner, MD.

Turner didn’t work on the ginseng study. He’s on staff at the University of Virginia’s pediatrics department.

The study also didn’t probe how ginseng might fight colds, Turner points out. He calls for more studies to see if ginseng really counters the common cold.

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Preventing, Coping With Colds

Expect researchers to kick this topic back and forth. Meanwhile, here are some tips from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) on avoiding the common cold:

—Wash your hands frequently.

—Avoid being close to people with colds.

—Try not to touch your eyes or nose. Your hands may have picked up cold germs.

—Know that cold germs can settle on surfaces such as telephones, stair rails, and door handles.

Already sniffling and sneezing? Rest in bed and drink plenty of fluids, the NIAID recommends. Those low-tech solutions may have to do until a certain cure is found.

Over-the-counter remedies may ease symptoms, but they won’t necessarily prevent or shorten colds, and some may cause drowsiness, insomnia, or upset stomachs, notes the NIAID.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Predy, G. Canadian Medical Association Journal, Oct. 25, 2005; vol 173: pp 1043-1048. Turner, R. Canadian Medical Association Journal, Oct. 25, 2005; vol 173: pp 1051-1052. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: “The Common Cold.” News release, Canadian Medical Association Journal.