(This story has been updated from January, 2015)

The time of year has come again where every sneeze and cough within a ten-foot radius sends you into a panic that you’ll be the next victim. But no matter how hard you try to stay healthy this season, most of us will suffer through at least one bout of a cold or, even worse, the flu. 

And if you’re anything like me, the first thing you’ll do (aside from cursing that guy on the train who sneezed on you) is reach for one of the more popular homeopathic remedies, like Cold Calm or Oscillococcinum. But do these really work or are we just kidding ourselves? 

Opinions are divided on the topic: New York-based licensed homeopath and chiropractor, Lauri Grossman, D.C. tells us that there have been a number of double-blind studies that have shown a statistically significant decrease in both the symptoms of flu-like body temperature and shivering, as well as the length of the illness when treated with Oscillococcinum. But there are other medical professionals who do not believe the research results are quite so definitive. 

“Can homeopathy work? I’m not sure,” says David Katz, MD, founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. “There is not much good quality evidence from unbiased studies, but I reserve judgment,” He tells patients that homeopathic remedies can be worth trying, and explains that while conventional medicine relies on “dissimilars,” which Katz describes as like “treating fire with water,” homeopathy treats the body with “similars” to stimulate the body’s native defenses (like how vaccines work). “There are claims of benefit from homeopathy and very little potential for harm,” adds Katz. 

Roger Morrison, MD, founder of the Hahnemann Medical Clinic and Hahnemann College of Homeopathy in Point Richmond, California, concurs that scientific studies that test homeopathy against possible placebo effects are not in abundance. However, the anecdotal evidence Morrison sees in his own practice is significant: “I’ve seen hundreds of patients with symptoms like a high fever and horrible aches take a homeopathic remedy, nap peacefully for a few hours, and wake up as if nothing was wrong.”

If you do choose to go the homeopathic route, it’s not as simple as just popping some Cold Calm and instantly feeling better. “If you wait until you get sick [to take remedies like Cold Calm and Oscillococcinum], it’s likely too late,” warns Grossman. “These are most effective when taken at the very first sign of illness. You actually don’t need to take much if the timing is correct.”

However, if someone misses that window of opportunity, Grossman says that a more personalized homeopathic remedy can help you feel better faster. For instance, a flu with symptoms like severe aching, a frontal headache, and irritability might be treated with bryonia alba while a flu with a rapid onset fever, a flushed face, and icy cold hands might be prescribed belladonna. For your own homeopathic prescription, Grossman recommends consulting The Complete Homepathy Book, Everybody’s Guide to Homeopathic Medicines, or seeing a trained professional.

Whether you choose the homeopathy route this winter or not, Katz and Grossman both agree that getting plenty of rest, daily exercise, and healthy eating (you know, the basics) are truly the best way to help prevent getting sick in the first place. 

Sources:

  1. OscillococcinumR in patients with influenza-like syndromes: A placebo-controlled double-blind evaluation
  2. The Complete Homepathy Book
  3. Everybody’s Guide to Homeopathic Medicines