A kiss is just a kiss, a cold is just a cold. But somehow, it’s not feeling quite like Casablanca. When you’re tired and achy, your throat’s scratchy, your nose is stuffy and you feel altogether crappy, all you want to do is hit the fast-forward button and make it all go away.
Unfortunately, there is no fast-forward for the common cold. The drill goes something like this:
If you wait it out, it’ll be over in seven days. If you treat it, it will last a week. And what if it’s actually the flu? Fuggedaboudit. I once had a flu that KO’d me for three weeks.
OK, so it’s not news that the only sure cure for this vexing virus is time. But with the cornucopia of cold concoctions lined up on pharmacy shelves and in natural-foods stores—not to mention the age-old advice from our mothers and grandmothers—my editors and I wondered: What, if anything, really works? Are there things we should avoid? Surely, there must be something that can ease the way, maybe even speed the healing process a bit (fingers crossed).
So we came up with a list of things we’ve tried, heard about, read about and wondered about, did a little research and picked the brains of three local M.D.s, all who have an interest in alternative and complementary medicine. Here’s what we found.
If this story had a theme song, it would be “Rest Is Best,” with one of those annoying hooks that you just can’t get out of your mind. “A lot of people won’t take the time to rest, and then they get angry when they’re not getting better,” observes Hillary Campbell, M.D., an internist for Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento. Uh-huh. We all know these people: The ones who insist on coming to work, going to the gym, hosting dinner parties for 10 and generally carrying on as though nothing’s wrong, even though they’re feeling lousy. OK, but what if you’re an athlete or workout maven whose body is trained for tons of activity? Then “bring it down a notch,” advises Kay Judge, M.D., of Sutter Downtown Integrative Health in Sacramento. Do yourself a favor and get your rest, she says, because “when you drain your energy reserves, you’re weakening your immune system”—and we all know what that means.
The verdict: Thumbs up. (Way up.)
This one may surprise you. While many of us have been popping Vitamin C tabs and guzzling gallons of OJ as a cold treatment since Linus Pauling was hailed for his pro-C advocacy back in the ’70s, the data is actually mixed. What we know now, says Campbell, is that it’s mostly useful for that population we talked about a minute ago: the hard-core athlete. “I think you’ve gotta get the word out there that Vitamin C does not work for the common cold,” she says. The Mayo Clinic website (mayoclinic.com) backs her up, reporting that while Vitamin C does not appear to help the average Joe, it “does seem to benefit those who engage in extreme physical exercise or those who are exposed to extremely cold environments.” Yet other studies say that 250 to 500 milligrams of C twice daily may help to slightly reduce a cold’s duration. Who knows?
The verdict: Jury’s out.
Turns out our grandmothers were right: Good old-fashioned chicken soup really can help to relieve cold symptoms—and gosh darn it, it’s comforting, too. So just how does it work? Judge quotes a University of Nebraska study, which found that chicken soup decreases inflammation and speeds the movement of mucus through the nose, helping to clear up congestion. “When I first read the study, I thought, ‘Well, it’s just the heat,’” says Judge. But it works better than hot water, she says, suggesting “it has something to do with the ingredients.” But Granny won’t like this part: Canned soup, it turns out, works just as well as homemade. (It just doesn’t taste as good.)
The verdict: Thumbs up.
Put it on “Oprah” and bam: A trend is born. That’s what happened with the neti pot, whose popularity soared after being introduced by the affable Dr. Mehmet Oz on Winfrey’s daytime talk show. In truth, the neti technique of irrigating nasal passages has been around for thousands of years—but whatever. All that matters is that it works. Here’s how: After filling the pot with warm, slightly salty water (or an over-the-counter saline solution), you insert the spout into one nostril, tilt your head to one side and let the water flow up your nose and out of the other nostril. (Lovely.) The result: The nasal cavity is rinsed, which can help anyone with a stuffy nose spell relief. So what do our local experts say about the neti pot, which is so popular you can find it everywhere from Target to Walgreens, usually for around $15? Judge says she recommends it, but “mostly for those who get three or four sinus infections or colds every year, because it will help them to keep secretions clear and prevent colds and sinus infections.” For the rest of us, Judge recommends something simpler: Take a steamy shower and blow your nose.
The verdict: Thumbs up.
We know hot yoga is hot. But is it advisable for sickies? “I have some reservations about immersing the body in heat, because that can send the body a message of ‘don’t make heat,’ and that’s a little immune-suppressing,” says M. Kelly Sutton, M.D., of Raphael Medicine + Therapies in Fair Oaks. But the bigger reason not to go to yoga class when you’re sick, says Sutton, is this: You might spread germs. ’Nuff said.
The verdict: Thumbs down.
One girlfriend—we’ll call her “M”—swears by Afrin nasal decongestant spray. “I don’t know what’s in that stuff,” she says, “but it almost instantly unblocks my sinuses and keeps them open for many hours.” But there’s a big caveat: She only uses it for three days, as the manufacturer makes it clear that longer use may lead to rebound congestion. “I don’t know what that is,” says M, “but it sounds horrible.” The possibility of rebound congestion, which can happen after extended use if the spray causes nasal linings to swell up again, is the very reason Kaiser’s Campbell votes “no” on sprays like Afrin. “Rebound congestion can be worse than the congestion you had before,” she says. If you must use a spray, most experts advise the saline variety, which doesn’t carry the danger of a rebound effect and has the added benefit of keeping nasal passages moist. (Note: Afrin does make a saline mist.)
The verdict: Thumbs up—but only for saline sprays.
As a frequent flyer (and chronic germaphobe), I was sucked in by those Airborne ads, figuring that if it protected a teacher surrounded by germy kids, it could help me, too. Then came the sledgehammer: In 2008, the makers of Airborne agreed to refund consumers as part of a $23.3 million class-action lawsuit brought against the company for falsely advertising its product as a “miracle cold buster.” As it turns out, Airborne, developed by said teacher, is just a vitamin-mineral-herb mix, and there’s no evidence that it helps to prevent or treat colds.
The verdict: Thumbs down.
Echinacea and astragalus
Here, the data is mixed. But some studies show that these herbal immune boosters may help to reduce the symptoms and duration of a cold, especially when taken at the first sign of a sniffle. And knowing your blood type can help: Sutton has found that echinacea seems to work best for A, Bs and ABs, while astragalus is better for Os.
The verdict: Jury’s out (but it’s worth a try).
A few other quick tips from the docs: Gargle with honey and water—it kills bacteria, according to Sutton. Don’t use multipurpose remedies (like DayQuil and NyQuil, my personal favorites); it’s best, says Judge, to “treat your symptoms specifically,” i.e., if you’ve got congestion, use a decongestant. And don’t forget to drink, drink, drink your fluids—though we don’t mean mango martinis.
Of course, the very best thing you can do is take care of yourself by eating right and getting adequate exercise and rest all year long so you decrease the probability of getting sick when cold season hits. But you’ve heard that drill a thousand times, so we’ll just leave it at that.
What’s your standard advice for a patient with a cold?
“Be nice to your body. Listen to your body. If you need to rest a little more, rest a little more. Sleep an extra hour. Decrease stress, and give your body time to heal instead of pushing your body.”—Kay Judge, M.D.
“Rest a lot, and take Tylenol or Motrin for the aches and pains. A humidifier can help because it keeps the nasal passages moist, and germs can’t live in a moist environment as well as they can in a dry environment. Decongestants like Sudafed can provide mild, short-term relief.”—Hillary Campbell, M.D.