Remedies for Cold & Flu
It may be “just a cold,” but it’s nothing to sneeze at. And the flu can make you feel downright flattened. Fortunately, fast action on your part can mitigate the misery. Herbs, chicken soup, zinc—and even your blow-dryer—are part of the healing arsenal. At the first sign of a sniffle, turn to home remedies for cold & cough, which can unstuff your head, boost your immune engines, and speed your illness on its way—unlike typical cold medicines, which can dry you out, put you to sleep, keep you up at night, do nothing at all to make you better faster, and may even prolong your illness.
If your symptoms are above the neck—congestion, sore throat, sneezing, coughing—you probably have a cold, caused by any one of 200 viruses that other people’s sneezes or coughs have placed in the air or on something you’ve touched. If you have all those symptoms plus a fever of 102 degrees or more, headache, muscle aches, extreme fatigue, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting, you’re more likely to have the flu. The flu arises from one of three viruses, imaginatively named influenza A, B, and C. The flu can last from three to seven days.
- At the first hint of a cold, suck on a zinc gluconate lozenge every few hours. In one study, people who sucked on one lozenge that contained about 13 milligrams of zinc every two hours while awake shook off their symptoms three to four days sooner than people who didn’t. Don’t take zinc gluconate longer than a week, though, because excessive zinc can actually weaken immunity. And avoid zinc lozenges that contain citric acid or are sweetened with sorbitol or mannitol; these ingredients seem to weaken the mineral’s effectiveness.
- Zicam, a nasal gel spray that contains zinc, may be even more effective than zinc lozenges. In a recent study at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, people who used the gel saw their colds resolve in fewer than three days. Subjects who used a placebo had to wait nine days for their symptoms to go away.
Head Off a Head Cold
- As soon as you notice cold or flu symptoms, start taking 500 milligrams of vitamin C four to six times a day. Buy a brand with added bioflavonoids, which have been shown to enhance the effectiveness of vitamin C by as much as 35 percent. If you develop diarrhea, cut down on the dose.
- Take one 250-milligram astragalus capsule twice a day until you’re better. This ancient Chinese herb stimulates the immune system and seems to be highly effective at fighting colds and flu. To prevent a relapse, take one capsule twice a day for an additional week after your symptoms are gone.
- Goldenseal stimulates the immune system and has germ-fighting compounds that can kill viruses. As soon as you begin to feel sick, take 125 milligrams five times a day for five days.
Should I call the doctor?
Colds are miserable but generally go away on their own, speeded along by rest and home remedies. The same goes for mild cases of the flu; more severe cases may require a doctor’s care. If you don’t know which you have, let your symptoms be your guide. Your doctor will want to hear from you if you’ve had a fever above 101 degrees for more than three days, or any fever above 103 degrees. Call, too, if you start to wheeze, find it hard to breathe, feel severe pain in your lungs, chest, throat, or ear, or cough up copious amounts of sputum, especially if it’s bloody or has a greenish tinge. For children, a fever can quickly lead to dehydration, so it’s important to keep pushing fluids and to be in touch with your doctor.
Bring On the Flu Fighters
- At the first sign of the flu, take 20 to 30 drops of elderberry tincture three or four times daily for three days. Elderberry has been used in Europe for centuries to fight viruses, and research appears to bear out its effectiveness. In one study, people who took elderberry recovered faster from the flu than those who didn’t. Ninety-three percent of the elderberry group saw their symptoms subside within two days, compared to six days in a group that didn’t get the herb.
- The homeopathic medicine Oscillococcinum, more commonly called Oscillo, is widely recommended by naturopaths, doctors, and herbalists to reduce the severity of flu symptoms. It is sold in most pharmacies and health-food stores. Be sure to use it within 12 to 48 hours of the first appearance of your symptoms. It comes in packages of three to six vials. Buy the three-vial pack and take one vial every six hours.
- Try N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), a form of the amino acid cysteine. It helps thin and loosen mucus and reduce flu symptoms. Take one 600-milligram dose three times daily.
Soothe a Sore Throat
- For a sore throat, fill an 8-ounce glass with warm water, mix in 1 teaspoon of salt, and gargle away. The salt really does soothe the pain.
- The traditional sore-throat gargle—a squeeze of lemon juice in a glass of warm water—is ideal because it creates an acidic environment that’s hostile to bacteria and viruses.
Soup Up Your Cold-Fighting Engine
- “Jewish penicillin,” otherwise known as chicken soup, that time-honored remedy of remedies, offers more than comfort for colds and flu. Modern scientists have confirmed that chicken soup stops certain white blood cells, called neutrophils, from congregating and causing inflammation, which in turn causes the body to produce copious amounts of mucus. It also thins mucus better than plain old hot water. Homemade soup is the best bet, especially if it’s made by someone you love.
- Add fresh chopped garlic to your chicken soup. The Egyptian pharaohs used garlic to fight infection, and its healing powers are legendary. Among its dozens of active compounds are allicin and allin, shown in test-tube studies to kill germs outright. The “stinking rose” also appears to stimulate the release of natural killer cells, part of the immune system’s arsenal of germ-fighters.
Wet Your Whistle—and Everything Else
- Fighting off colds and flu can rob your body of moisture. Drink as much water as you can—eight or more 8-ounce glasses—to keep your mucous membranes moist and to help relieve dry eyes and other common flu symptoms. Fluids also help thin mucus so that it’s easier to blow it out.
- To help keep mucus loose, stay in a moist, warm, well-ventilated room. To keep the air in your bedroom moist, place bowls of water near the radiator (in the winter) or run a humidifier.
A Reeking Remedy
- A dose of garlic—a natural antiseptic—will do a job on those viruses. If you’re feeling very brave, hold a small clove or a half-clove of garlic in your mouth and breathe the fumes into your throat and lungs. If it gets too strong as the clove softens, just chew it up quickly into smaller pieces and swallow with water.
- You can also get a therapeutic dose of garlic in capsule form. Buy enteric-coated capsules, the kind that are easiest for the body to absorb. The typical dose is 400 to 600 milligrams four times a day, taken with food. Look for pills standardized to 4,000 micrograms of allicin potential.
Clear Out Congestion
- For a serious congestion-busting blast, buy fresh horseradish or gingerroot, grate it, and eat a small amount. (Alternatively, you can get the bottled forms of grated horseradish or ginger and eat as much as one-quarter to one-half tablespoon.) To guard against stomach upset, wait until after a meal to try this.
- Drink a cup of ginger tea. Make it with a ginger tea bag or with one-half teaspoon of grated gingerroot. Ginger helps block the production of substances that cause bronchial congestion and stuffiness, and it contains compounds called gingerols, which are natural cough suppressants.
- Spike broth or soup with a dash of Tabasco sauce, red pepper flakes, or wasabi, the condiment (usually made from horseradish) that’s eaten with sushi. All of these red-hot add-ins can increase the broth’s decongestant power. In fact, adding any of them to any food can help you breathe more freely.
- Wear wet socks to bed. Believe it or not, this soggy strategy can help ease a fever and clear congestion by drawing blood to the feet, which dramatically increases blood circulation. (Blood stagnates in the areas of greatest congestion.) Best method: First warm your feet in hot water. Then soak a thin pair of cotton socks in cold water, wring them out, and slip them on just before going to bed. Put a pair of dry wool socks over the wet ones. The wet socks should be warm and dry in the morning, and you should feel markedly better.
- Try soaking your feet in a mustard footbath. In a basin, mix 1 tablespoon of mustard powder in 1 quart of hot water. The mustard draws blood to your feet, which helps to relieve congestion.
- An old-as-the-hills remedy for chest congestion involves a mustard plaster made from mustard seeds and flour or cornmeal. Grind up three tablespoons of mustard seeds and add the powder to a cup of flour or cornmeal. Stir in just enough water to make a paste, then slather it on your chest. The pungent aroma helps to unclog stuffy sinuses, and the heat improves blood circulation and eases congestion. Don’t leave the plaster on for more than 15 minutes, however, or your skin may burn. You may want to smear on a bit of petroleum jelly before you apply the plaster to protect the skin.
Did you know?
When you blow your nose, do it gently. Otherwise you might create reverse pressure that can lead to the virus or bacteria going up into your sinuses. To keep the reverse pressure to an absolute minimum, blow one nostril at a time.
Steam Clean Your Nasal Passages
- Pour just-boiled water into a large bowl. Drape a towel over your head to trap the steam, and breathe in through your nose for 5 to 10 minutes. Don’t lower your face too close to the water or you risk scalding your skin or inhaling vapors that are too hot.
- To make steam inhalations even more effective, add 5 to 10 drops thyme oil or eucalyptus oil to the water. Keep your eyes closed as you breathe the steam, since both the essential oil and steam can be irritating to your peepers.
- When you’re on the go, dab some tissues with a few drops of eucalyptus oil and bring them with you. Whenever you feel congested, hold a tissue to your nose and inhale.
Ring a Stiff Neck
The flu can give you one doozy of a stiff neck. To take the ache away, wet a hand towel, wring it out, place it in a plastic bag, and microwave it for 60 seconds. Or simply boil a towel in hot water. The towel should steam when you remove it from the bag or the pot of water. When it’s cool enough, wring it out. Then wrap the towel around your shoulders and neck and lie down. (Put a beach or bath towel under you to keep the bed or couch dry.) To lock in the heat, wrap a dry towel around the wet one.
The Power of Prevention
- During cold and flu season, take 20 to 30 drops of echinacea tincture in a half-cup of water three times a day. A tincture made with pure echinacea should cause a slight numbing sensation on your tongue. Take it for a few weeks, then wait a week before resuming.
- Wash your hands often with soap and warm water, especially after you use a public restroom or if you’re around people who are sick. Don’t touch your face with unwashed hands either. In 1998 the Naval Health Research Center conducted a study of 40,000 recruits who were ordered to wash their hands five times a day. The recruits cut their incidence of respiratory disease by 45 percent.
- Use a humidifier or cool-mist vaporizer during the winter months to keep indoor air moist.
- Practice stress-control techniques year-round, but especially during cold and flu season. Research suggests that the more stress you’re under, the more likely you are to get sick.
- Make love at least once a week. In one study, men and women who were sexually active at least that often had higher levels of immune-system molecules called immunoglobulin A—which play an important role in shielding the mucous membranes from invaders—than people who weren’t.
- Get some rest. Most people get colds and flus when they’re run down. So call in sick and sleep. Research shows that even if you are marginally sleep-deprived, your resistance to viruses can decline dramatically. In one study, certain immune cells that stalk viral infections dropped by 30 percent in people who got just slightly less sleep than usual in a single night.
- Widen your circle of friends. In a study of over 200 men and women, people who had strong social ties developed fewer colds. Researchers gave the subjects nasal drops containing rhinovirus, the bug that causes most colds, and they found that those with only one to three social relationships were four times more likely to come down with a cold than those who had six or more friends.
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