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Old Fashioned Cold Remedies

by Steve Edwards
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Got a Cold? Consider Giving Grandma a Call. Science shows that many "old wives' tales" actually work.

Grandma's Cold RemediesDuring the cold season, your friends, neighbors, and coworkers will have no shortage of supposed cures. Most of these will begin with the words "Grandma used to say . . ." Here's a rundown of what science has to say about those oh-so-anecdotal remedies.

  • Chicken SoupChicken soup. The number-one icon of cold relievers, this one's been utilized on practically every Cold War TV show from Leave It to Beaver to Bonanza. And you know what? They were all right!

    Research published in the journal Chest revealed that this traditional cure-all is the most effective remedy to help you recover from a cold. Heat is the key, so any soup will work to a degree, as it promotes airway secretions and has a calming action on inflamed throats. But chicken soup's combination of fats, spices, and water seems to work best when it comes to breaking up mucus.

    Lab tests have also shown that chicken soup is medicine - Scientists say they have confirmed what grandmothers have known for centuries that chicken soup is good for colds. (Read more in "Chicken Soup for the Cold - Does It Work")
  • Hot ToddyHot toddy. When I was a kid, the best thing about being sick, well, besides being able to watch reruns of I Love Lucy and Speed Racer all day, was that I got to drink alcohol. A hot toddy's mixture of piping hot water, whiskey, and lemon can provide a lot of relief. Alcohol has an anti-inflammatory effect on mucous membranes and can help reduce fever. And according to Ron Eccles, director of the Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University, "Hot fluid has a demulcent and soothing action . . . those containing slightly bitter flavors such as lemon and citric acid are particularly beneficial."

  • Feed a cold; starve a fever. The jury's still out on this one. Dutch researchers have found that the balance of two chemicals that regulate the immune system seem to shift markedly when eating and fasting, leading to a theory that eating less during a cold may shorten its duration. However, most nutritionists would disagree, because your body needs more nutrients when fighting an illness. Balancing the two, meaning small and nutrient-dense meals at regular intervals, is probably the best compromise.

  • GarlicGarlic. Did your grandmother used to crush garlic and mix it with warm milk? Mine did, and I was never sold that this vile concoction did anything but scare my cold out of me. However, some research seems to show that large amounts of garlic can shorten the duration of a cold. Allicin, an active compound in garlic, is known to act as a decongestant, and garlic is known to have high antioxidant properties. So once again, Granny has been proven correct.

  • Sweat it out. This old wives' tale has merit, but not in the traditional manner. I used to get sent to bed with a hot water bottle inside my pajamas, but this seems to be the exact opposite of how to induce healthful perspiration. In fact, exercise is the key, according to Thomas Weidner of Ball State University. He has shown that light exercise in fresh air can ease a runny nose, sore throat, or sneezing.

  • Vitamin CVitamin C. My mom, a nutritionist, used to load me up on vitamin C when I had a cold. This, I believe, she got from Linus Pauling, a chemist by training who was in reality much more akin to the Professor on Gilligan's Islandan authority on almost everything. Turns out that Professor Pauling, who lived to 93 years of age, nailed this one. According to a large review of clinical research at Helsinki University, regular doses of vitamin C may cut an adult's cold duration in half and a child's by a day.

  • Breathe steam. Ah, so fondly do I remember my head being shoved under a towel above a pot of boiling water. Once again, what I thought was nothing other than a scare tactic has been shown to work. Steam liquefies and loosens mucus, allowing clearance of the airwaves that can relieve coughs and nasal congestion.

  • EchinaceaEchinacea, et al. Unless you're Chinese, you probably didn't grow up with echinacea, astragalus, and all the other now-popular traditional Asian remedies on the market. Luckily for me, one of my best friends did. His mom had a cure for just about everything, and we'd sit around taste testing all sorts of weird-looking plants. I don't know whether or not the stuff worked, but the year I met him was the same year I stopped getting a two-week case of bronchitis every winter. Studies have shown varying effectiveness of most Chinese herbs, but the World Health Organization endorses echinacea and millions of Chinese have been swearing by it for centuries. And, hey, I stopped getting sick, too!
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