It’s that time of year again, when stuffy noses and irrepressible coughs start popping up everywhere.
The best precaution you can take against the flu or Covid infection is to get vaccinated. But there’s little you can do about the common cold and other respiratory illnesses, especially when you get sick. Most are caused by viruses, so it is not possible to cure them with antibiotics, which are used to treat bacterial infections. While medications like Paxlovid are affordable for treating Covid, antiviral flu treatments like Tamiflu are generally reserved for people who have tested positive for the flu and are at risk of developing serious complications, such as those who are pregnant, elderly, or immunocompromised. .
For everyone else, doctors suggest resting and waiting out symptoms, which in the case of the flu can include fever, headache, body aches and a blocked or runny nose that lasts three to five days. Some people may also develop a cough or sore throat or experience fatigue, which may last a little longer, said Dr. H. Keipp Talbot, associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Symptoms of the common cold are incredibly similar, which is why people tend to call everything that happens in the winter the flu, Dr. Talbot said. But cold symptoms generally develop more slowly, are milder than what you’d experience with the flu, and are unlikely to result in serious health problems. (People with Covid also have respiratory symptoms; testing is the best way to know which virus you likely have.)
There’s a saying that if you treat a cold it goes away in seven days, if you leave it alone it goes away in a week, said Dr. Aviva Romm, a doctor specializing in integrative medicine.
For generations, countless home remedies, from cups of hot tea or soup to spoons of herbs, have helped control cold and flu symptoms, such as sore throat or congestion. Scientists have conducted research over the years trying to quantify how effective some of these medications are, how often they should be used, and which formulations work best. But studies are often small or don’t show much effectiveness.
Still, experts acknowledge that there’s no harm in adopting practices that can make you feel better when you’re sick, even if they end up providing a placebo effect. (You should see a medical professional if your symptoms are severe, if you have difficulty breathing, or if you don’t notice any improvement after more than a week.)
Sometimes we don’t have evidence for many common traditional practices because there isn’t much economic value in studying them, but we have thousands of years of anecdotal data and we have enough evidence to prove their safety, said Dr.
Here’s what we know and don’t know about some of the most popular remedies that show at least a little promise.
Boosting the immune system: vitamin C, elderberry and zinc
There is some evidence to suggest that certain vitamins and ingredients in home remedies, such as vitamin C, elderberry, and zinc, may, at the very least, boost the immune system and slightly shorten the duration of symptoms.
The idea that vitamin C can help with a cold isn’t new; it was popularized by Nobel laureate Linus Pauling in the 1970s, which triggered an increase in demand for the nutrient. Since then, scientists linked to the supplement industry have suggested that vitamin C helps support several functions, such as the ability of immune cells to find and fight infections.
The effectiveness of nutrients is still debated. For one, the body is not able to store high doses of vitamin C, such as those found in supplements, and any excess vitamin C is usually excreted in the urine. Some clinical trials have found that the timing of taking vitamin C supplements may be crucial to their effectiveness: a comprehensive meta-analysis of vitamin C trials published in 2013, for example, suggests that regular supplementation, even before starting feeling sick can reduce the duration of colds by about a day. But taking vitamin C after you’ve already developed symptoms doesn’t have consistent benefits.
In some studies, elderberry, a common ingredient in cold and flu syrups, especially those intended for young children, shortened the duration of symptoms when taken before or immediately at the onset of an illness. But it’s a very limited amount of data, Romm said. Elderberries contain potent antioxidants and chemicals known as anthocyanins, which have been shown in laboratory experiments to help with immune function.
Similarly, research on zinc suggests that taking syrups and lozenges containing the trace element every three to four hours can reduce the length of a cold or flu by one or two days, potentially stopping viruses from multiplying. Other reviews concluded that there is not enough evidence to say that it is better than a placebo.
Most zinc formulations have several side effects. Some people who have used zinc nasal sprays have had permanent loss of smell. Those who take it orally may experience a lasting metallic taste in their mouth. What’s really important to note is that you should take zinc with food because it can be really nauseating, Dr. Romm said.
Stay hydrated and soothe sore throats: teas, soup, ginger and turmeric
A sore throat is often the natural result of inflammation created when the immune system is fighting a virus lodged in the upper respiratory tract. Swelling and pain can make it difficult to eat and stay hydrated. This ends up making your throat even drier. Coughing can make things even worse. Staying hydrated by drinking plain water, hot teas, broths, or soups can help you feel more comfortable.
In many cultures, ginger is one of the first things people reach for when faced with a sore throat. It is often steeped in boiling water along with other herbs to make soothing teas or added to chicken soup. And it turns out there may be some science to support these ancient practices: Some studies have found that ginger may have anti-inflammatory properties that can help relieve swelling.
Turmeric root, a plant in the ginger family native to Southeast Asia and long used in Indian Ayurvedic medical practices, may also reduce inflammation. But it has been difficult to prove its effects because the root’s main compound, curcumin, is not easily absorbed by the body and curcumin supplements can differ greatly in composition. Eating turmeric in food or mixing it with a fatty substance such as cooking oil or warm milk can help you absorb more of curcumin’s benefits. Adding black pepper can also help with its absorption, Dr. Romm said.
Ginger and turmeric together are a really, really good combination, Romm said, adding that when she’s dealing with a sore throat, she makes ginger and turmeric tea.
Controlling cough: salt water and honey
If the sore throat is aggravated by coughing, gargling with salt water may be helpful. Mix about half a teaspoon of salt into a full glass of warm water and swish it around in your mouth and down the back of your throat for a few seconds before spitting it out. Any type of salt you have at home can work.
Doctors often recommend gargling with salt water as a way to relieve pain in the mouth or back of the throat and improve overall oral health. Gargling helps loosen thick mucus and can also remove irritants like bacteria, viruses, and allergens from your throat. Using a saline solution offers the added benefit of drawing excess fluid from inflamed tissues and covering them with warm water, said Dr. Talbot, associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Adding honey to your gargle solution, or any tea or hot drink, can have a similar calming effect. Honey acts as a demulcent, meaning it soothes irritated tissues by coating them.
Many cultures have their own variation of a calming honey drink. And some research shows that the medicine works to reduce cough frequency. In fact, a study of children ages 1 to 5 found that taking two teaspoons of honey at bedtime was just as effective at reducing nighttime coughs and improving sleep quality as the medication dextromethorphan found in cough syrups sold without a prescription. (However, honey should not be given to children under one year of age due to the risk of a rare type of food poisoning known as infant botulism.)
Congestion Relief: Neti Pot, Herbs, and Steam
Keeping the nasal passages hydrated is another simple and safe remedy that can help children and adults get some relief from the flu or cold. You can achieve this by using a humidifier in your room, preparing some herbal steam, or rinsing your nose with warm salt water.
The use of neti pots and nasal irrigation dates back thousands of years to Ayurvedic medicine. Just like gargling with salt water, nasal rinsing can help remove some viruses and mucus from the body while also reducing swelling that can cause congestion. A study published in 2019 showed that this process can help shorten the duration of the illness, as well as reduce the potential transmission of germs to other people.
You should only use distilled, sterile, or boiled water for rinsing, as tap water may contain small amounts of bacteria and protozoa that pose a risk of other infections. Alternatively, you can try commercial saline nasal sprays to achieve a similar effect.
Fadel Hind, an infectious disease doctor at the Mayo Clinic, keeps a humidifier running in her home during winter flu season. Her research has shown that keeping rooms at a humidity level of about 40 to 60 percent reduces the transmission of respiratory viruses and can even prevent you from getting sick. With this humidity, you tend to find fewer viruses on surfaces and in the air. And the virus that is present is less viable, she said.
Some humidifiers have built-in sensors that can tell you the humidity level in a room, Hind said. If yours doesn’t work, you can buy a basic hygrometer for $10 or less to monitor the water vapor in the air around you and test the performance of a humidifier you already have.
If you get a cold or flu, a humidifier can still help relieve cough and congestion, although there is less data on how well it works compared to a placebo or whether it can shorten the overall duration of your illness, said Dr.
Menthol, a chemical found in peppermint and other mint plants, may also make breathing easier. You can rub a store-bought menthol ointment, such as Vicks VapoRub, under your nose or on your neck and throat to get relief from your symptoms. Some people also use fresh or dried herbs in traditional steam therapies to clear congestion. You can do this by steeping herbs, such as eucalyptus or thyme, in boiling water for five to 10 minutes, then covering your head with a towel and breathing in the steam (being careful with the hot water). Alternatively, you can hang the dried leaves in a steam bath to get some of these benefits.
Some studies have found that steam massage containing menthol, eucalyptus and camphor, when applied to the neck and chest, significantly improved sleep in children and adults with cold symptoms, but experts warn that it can be irritating for some people.
Ultimately, choosing a cold medicine is a matter of trial and error until you find something that makes you most comfortable, Dr. Romm said. And that, she added, is worth it.
Audio produced by Kate Winslett.
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