Can Ginseng Help Fight Off Colds?

Woman with a cold
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In herbal medicine, several species of ginseng are said to fight colds, including American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and Asian or Korean ginseng (Panax ginseng). Compounds known as ginsenosides are thought to play a key role in ginseng's potentially cold-fighting effects.

Why Do People Use Ginseng for Colds?

Proponents suggest that American ginseng and Panax ginseng can help boost the immune system and shore up the body's defense against the common cold.

Additionally, ginseng is considered an adaptogen (a class of herbs said to boost the body's resistance to everyday stress). Since chronic stress is thought to weaken the immune system, it's said that ginseng may also fight colds by shielding the body from the negative effects of stress.

The Research on Ginseng for Colds

Few studies have focused on the effectiveness of ginseng for the prevention and/or treatment of colds. Here's a look at key findings from the available research:

For a report published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2011, researchers examined the use of American ginseng or Asian ginseng for the prevention of colds in healthy adults. Five clinical trials (with a total of 747 participants) were included. Results revealed a trend toward a lower risk of developing a common cold in the ginseng group compared to the placebo group, however the researchers caution that further research is needed due to the inconsistency in results.

In a study published in The Journal of Supportive Oncology in 2012, 293 people with early-stage chronic lymphocytic leukemia (a type of blood cancer that weakens the immune system) took a Panax quinquefolius extract or a placebo. Use of the ginseng extract did not reduce the number of days with acute respiratory illness or antibiotic use, however, there was a trend toward reduced rates of moderate to severe respiratory illness and less sore throat.

Safety Concerns

Although short-term use of ginseng may be safe when used in appropriate amounts by healthy people, each type of ginseng is associated with a number of side effects. For example, side effects linked with the use of Panax ginseng and American ginseng include insomnia, headache, diarrhea, and nervousness.

Since the use of ginseng may also increase blood pressure and lead to changes in heart rhythm, you should avoid it if you have or are at risk for heart disease.

Also avoid ginseng if you have a bleeding disorder, hormone-sensitive condition (such as breast cancer), autoimmune disease, schizophrenia, are pregnant or nursing, have received an organ transplant, or are undergoing or recovering from surgery.

Many types of ginseng may interact with a number of commonly used medications (for instance, it can't be taken with warfarin), so it's crucial to consult your physician prior to taking ginseng.

Alternatives

Echinacea and astragalus are other herbs that are sometimes to fight colds. Increasing your intake of garlic and ginger may also help fend off colds.

Furthermore, there's some evidence that getting your fill of vitamin C and zinc and maintaining optimal levels of vitamin D may lower your odds of coming down with a cold.

The Takeaway

Based on the lack of large-scale clinical trials, it's too soon to recommend ginseng as a treatment for colds.

For help in staying cold-free, make sure to wash your hands frequently. A number of lifestyle practices (such as getting sufficient sleep, exercising regularly, and managing your stress) can help rev up your immune system as well.