A baker's dozen cold remedies that still work a century later

November 21, 1999

LOS ANGELES (Nov. 22, 1999) -- Even as medical science continues to search into the next century for a cure for the common cold, many of the herbs, spices and concoctions grandma used at the dawn of this century can still make the symptoms more manageable today.

"Many of the basic, common-sense therapies that mothers and grandmothers have depended on through the years are still valid. They told us to drink lots of liquids, get plenty of rest, for example. They made steaming chicken soup, which not only helps break up nasal congestion, but also contains garlic, which has antibiotic properties," says Mary L. Hardy, M.D., board-certified specialist in internal medicine and a member of the American Botanical Society and the American Holistic Medical Association.

Dr. Hardy directs the Integrative Medicine Medical Group at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a program that integrates Western medical practice with botanical medicine, traditional Chinese approaches, acupuncture and other alternative therapies.

Most colds and related viral infections -- characterized by gradual onset of sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, coughing, and sometimes fever -- make us feel miserable before they go away within four to 10 days. Over-the-counter drugs and more natural remedies can help, but Dr. Hardy urges patients and their caregivers to use caution and pay close attention to symptoms.

"Many people say 'cold and flu' when referring to non-specific viral infections. When a doctor hears 'flu,' the doctor hears 'influenza,' which is a particular kind of infection that can be life-threatening," says Dr. Hardy. "The elderly and anyone with chronic health problems or a compromised immune system should be vaccinated against influenza. And if an illness comes on suddenly rather than gradually, includes high fever, enlarged lymph nodes or severe body aches, they should consult their physician immediately."

For people in good general health, on the other hand, tried-and-true folk remedies can be quite effective in treating a routine, minor cold, according to Dr. Hardy. "In fact, aggressive treatment at the earliest onset of symptoms will sometimes limit severity or even abort a cold."

Here are 13 herbs, remedies and concoctions from grandma's kitchen and garden that may be a welcome addition to your cold-war arsenal:

1. Water. Flowing from the faucet, pumped from a well or dipped from a babbling stream, water has been the mainstay of cold care for eons. Soak in a tub of cool -- not cold -- water to keep a fever in check. Add a dash of salt to warm water to gargle away a sore throat. Boil water or use a thoroughly cleaned humidifier to create steam and clear congestion. "Grandmother was right when she said to rehydrate. The first defense system in the body consists of the mucous membranes lining the upper respiratory tract. And those work better when they're moist," says Dr. Hardy. "Drink plenty of water and use steam treatments to provide internal and external hydration."

2. Chicken soup. Medical science is finally catching up with mothers and grandmothers in recognizing the healing properties of chicken soup. Studies conducted at highly respected institutions are finding that the heat, the liquid and the antibiotic activity of garlic, a common ingredient, can ease symptoms and support the immune system.

3. Wild cherry bark tea or tincture. It's no accident that many cough drops have a wild cherry flavor. At the turn of the century, most cough syrup was extracted from the bark of the wild cherry tree.

4. Goldenseal. Garlic, ginger and goldenseal have antiseptic, antiviral and antibiotic actions. Because cooking reduces potency, garlic is most effective when eaten raw. Ginger and goldenseal are both available in capsules and teas.

5. Eucalyptus. Use eucalyptus or camphor rubs to loosen the congestion of a chest cold and open sinuses. A mustard plaster applied to the chest is another alternative. If you can't find a prepared mix, combine water with a small amount of dry mustard to create a thin paste. Apply to the chest, put on a layer of warm flannel and, if desired, top with a hot water bottle or heating pad. Because eucalyptus, mustard and other warming agents can burn the skin, use them carefully and do not use them on children.

6. Honey and lemon. An occasional spoonful can help relieve a scratchy, tickling or raw throat.

7. Fruit juice. For many families in the United States, orange juice has long been the first choice as a source of vitamin C. Asian Indians have used the fruit of the amla tree to create a paste or jelly-like substance. Dilute fruit juices with water to reduce the sugar content. Too many sugary foods can hinder your immune response. Rosehip is another good source of vitamin C.

8. Osha root. If your grandmother was an American Indian, your traditional remedies might include osha root. To fight a cold, Native Americans chewed osha root, which turns out to be an immune system stimulator. Other alternatives from the Native American tradition include echinacea, yerba santa, an evergreen plant of the Southwest, and the wild indigo flower. "Different cultures have used a variety of remedies through the years," says Dr. Hardy. "From Native American Indians, for instance, we learned to use wild indigo, which has antiseptic benefits and is valuable in treating upper respiratory tract infections."

9. Lemon balm. The leaves and stems of this herb are used for lemon flavoring but they also have antiviral actions. Alternatives: St. John's wart and licorice, which is one of the most widely prescribed herbs in China. In addition to its antiviral properties, licorice is commonly used in cough lozenges for its ability to soothe.

10. Elderflower. Teas made from elderflower, linden or yarrow may help reduce fever.

11. Thyme. This herb has antibacterial properties that can aid in treating an upper respiratory infection.

12. Fenugreek. If you're feeling all stuffed up, the mucous-thinning action of fenugreek or fennel can help unblock your upper respiratory tract.

13. Cayenne. Add hot pepper, horseradish or ginger to your diet to clear clogged sinuses.

Because even natural, herbal remedies can interfere with medications and your body's normal metabolism, use extra caution if you have other medical conditions or are pregnant or breastfeeding. Also, some products should not be given to children.

"The first caution I give people is to get a good diagnosis," says Dr. Hardy. "If your cold is not acting like a normal cold or if it has lasted more than a short amount of time, go see your doctor to be sure you don't have a more serious condition, such as pneumonia."
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Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

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