Wellness: The Cold War

September 20 2012, 10:57 AM

I’ve been feeling—more accurately, sounding—fairly miserable for days. I’d been fighting a cold all last week, and it finally got the better of me this past weekend. We’re talking boxes upon boxes of tissues, body-convulsing coughing fits, and more Nyquil than water. My poor co-workers have been listening to the hacking and incessant nose-blowing all week. No one wants to hear that. Or breathe your air. Or generally be anywhere around you. (If it’s any reassurance to my colleagues, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says colds are most contagious in the first two to three days, and most aren’t contagious at all after a week.) Even worse for those healthy souls in the office: I’m not the only one. There was a veritable chorus of coughing along one wall of our workspace yesterday. Something’s definitely going around. Not surprising, since there are 200 viruses that give Americans more than a billion colds each year.

They say to let your cold run its course for about a week before seeing a doctor. In the meantime, having maxed out on tongue-numbing throat lozenges, viscous fake-cherry-flavored liquid cough suppressants, and other such over-the-counter goodies, I wondered if there was really any merit to the natural DIY home remedies you hear about. A quick search provided some answers of what does and doesn't work from NIH and the Mayo Clinic:

Chicken soup: It might sound like an old wives’ tale, but there’s actually some science behind the ol’ chicken soup fix. The salt and heat of the broth may be effective in battling infection. The soup acts as an anti-inflammatory to keep immune system cells in place to provide the body’s proper response to inflammation. Bonus? It can speed up the movement of mucus and provide short-term congestion relief. 

Echinacea: It’s widely known as a wellness-promoting agent, but the NIH says that certain highly rated studies have failed to show that this herbal supplement does anything in the way of preventing or treating the common cold.

Steam: The drier the conditions, the more the cold virus will thrive because the air dries the mucus to increase congestion. Take a hot shower; the steam may help keep mucus moving. And keep a humidifier running, especially in dry climates like Denver, to aid in tempering the cold virus. 

Salt water: Dissolve 1/4 to 1/8 teaspoon of salt in a glass of water and gargle with it for temporary relief of a soar or scratchy throat.

Zinc: According to the Mayo Clinic, studies that show Zinc’s effectiveness as a cold-fighting agent are flawed, so there’s little legitimate evidence that points to Zinc as a good remedy. Both Mayo and NIH say to take it within the first 24 hours of symptoms if at all.

Honey: Studies say that honey may be as effective as dextromethorphan, the main ingredient in pharmacy cough suppressants, in relieving the cough associated with the common cold.

Exercise: Yes, some people say a workout will actually make you feel better. But one Mayo physical medicine and rehab specialist warns to use the “above the neck” rule: If you’re just dealing with congestion and a soar throat or mild headache, getting your blood pumping might clear your nasal passages temporarily and give you some much-needed energy. But if you’re experiencing chest congestion, deep coughing, or any stomach issues, lay off the gym. It’ll only make you feel worse.

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