Usher Institute

Sea salt could help beat a cold, study suggests

A simple sea salt water solution could help to reduce the symptoms of a cold, research suggests.

The homemade remedy was shown to shorten the length of a cold by almost two days and to reduce the need for over-the-counter medicines by a third, but researchers caution that more studies are needed.

Traditional tonic

Experts say the method could be a cheap treatment for the cold and provides evidence that this traditional tonic could be effective.

Most adults in the UK suffer at least one cold every year. Families with school-age children of contract up to 12 annually.


There is no treatment for the common cold. Its symptoms are usually minor and short-lived, but the cold has a substantial impact on the economy, causing many people to take time off work.

The small pilot study – known as the Edinburgh and Lothians Viral Intervention Study, or ELVIS – recruited healthy adults within two days of them contracting an upper respiratory tract infection – commonly known as a cold.

Daily diary

Participants in the trial kept a diary of their symptoms for up to two weeks. Doctors also collected swabs to measure the amount of cold virus they were carrying.

The participants were divided into two groups with one group asked to gargle and clear their nose with a salt solution as they felt necessary.

Viral clearance

Those who did nasal irrigation and gargling with the salty solution had a shorter cold, were less likely to pass it on to their family, had faster viral clearance and were less likely to use medicines from a pharmacy.

Scientists led by the University’s Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics carried out the trial to test the safety and feasibility of the study.

Antiviral defence

Researchers say sea salt may work by boosting cells’ antiviral defence that kicks in when they are affected by a cold.

The study is published in Scientific Reports. 


The team have now started a larger study - known as ELVIS Kids - looking at salt water nose drops in almost 500 children with a cold.

Parents interested in the ELVIS Kids study can contact the study nurse on 07973 657457 for further information.

We hope to build on these early promising findings with a follow-on larger trial and with studies in high-risk populations such as those with asthma.

Professor  Aziz SheikhUniversity of Edinburgh

We are very encouraged by these suggestions from our pilot study that the misery caused by a cold can be effectively reduced with such a simple and cheap method.

Dr Sandeep RamalingamNHS Lothian

Related links

Original paper