In case the hacking, coughing, sneezing, and nose honking you're hearing from everyone around you wasn't enough indication, cold season is officially in full swing. And despite successfully sending a man to the moon and creating computers the size of a peanut, scientists still hasn't discovered a cure for the common cold, so we're forced to wallow in our misery and snot, and wait for it to pass.
But, ask your mom, friends, and colleagues, and they've all got an opinion on a foolproof cure. Don't go chugging a carton of orange juice just yet, though. We spoke to Guy Lin, M.D., an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist based in New York City and a member of ENT and Allergy Associates, to find out what common remedies are actually worth a damn, and which might be holding you back on your road to recovery.
Just note these aren't actual cures, "they're supportive therapies," Lin notes. "The body, ultimately, is its best vehicle for getting better and the other supportive therapies around it just facilitate it."
"Teas are extremely helpful. They're hydrating, they're soothing and they lubricate the voice box," Dr. Lin says. He points out that hot tea, as well as hot water with lemon and honey, are therapeutic, and any excuse to consume more liquid while you're sick (an absolute must) is helpful. However, regarding the supposed antioxidants in green tea working to expedite the healing process, Lin is quick to shoot it down. "I don't think there's evidence for it," he says.
Again, Lin says the hydrating and therapeutic benefits of chicken soup are beneficial. "You're just hydrating. I think as long as the therapy isn't doing harm, it's encouraged. So whether it's tea or lots of liquids or chicken soup, it's all hydration. The body needs extra fluids when you're sick." He also points out that eating healthy, natural ingredients and protein-dense foods, like chicken, are beneficial to recovery.
Lin sees benefits to eating garlic and ginger, but not for the magical immune-boosting powers many people believe they have. "There is power in our diet. There is some evidence to suggest that we don’t need as much calories while we're sick, and I think that raw, natural ingredients, especially when we're sick, probably have some healing and therapeutic effects. So garlic and ginger fall right into that category," he explains. "They're not heavy in calorie content and they're natural ingredients straight from the earth, so I think that's actually very helpful."
Salt Water/Hydrogen Peroxide Gargle
While Lin doesn't see anything wrong with salt water rinses, he says you would get more benefits from nasal rinses. Like neti pots? "A neti pot is probably less intensive than a rinse. A neti pot is something that, with gravity, the salt water goes in one nostril and comes out the nose." Instead he suggests using a nasal rinse, which looks like a small squeeze bottle. "A sinus rinse, for instance, would be a cleansing agent for the sinus cavity that you self-direct with a bottle." However, he warns, "There was once a link with neti pot use and a very rare amoebic brain infection." A contaminant was found in tap water, so Lin suggests using distilled or boiled water. As for the hydrogen peroxide, he says, "It can be a little irritating—there's some wound healing data that shows that hydrogen peroxide can delay wound healing. But if you have some form of virus or bacteria in the throat, it may be a little toxic to them, so it might help from that standpoint." Just be sure to dilute it and follow the gargling instructions on the bottle. [pagebreak]
Another remedy he is quick to shoot down is the growing popularity of vitamins and zinc supplements. "No evidence to suggest that it helps and a lot of people do it. You just have to be careful not to overdo it," he says. Abusing these vitamins can actually be harmful. He warns, "You're basically taxing your clearance systems, which consist of your kidneys and the liver. So if you're providing mega doses, you're not necessarily gaining extra benefits."
He says the same of herbal supplements as well. "There's never been any proof that these supplements actually provide any benefits." However, consumed as tea, they can help. "In tea forms, I think they're therapeutic," he says. But he points out that the bigger problem that taking these supplements causes is the illusion of wellness. "There's not a lot of evidence to support vitamins and minerals and zinc and a lot of the things people go to instinctively and they neglect the bigger picture, which is to take good care of your body."
Some might be concerned about hitting the gym when they're not 100 percent, but Lin sees big benefits. "You're treating your body well," he says about exercising sick. "If you feel like you want to exercise, that's not a bad sign. And if you do exercise, just remember you need to hydrate even more so you don't dehydrate. So the whole concept of 'exercising it out,' getting the 'evil spirits' out of your body, that could set you back if you don't replenish the lack of fluid balance."
Others swear by spicy foods to clear your sinuses and make you sweat out a cold. While Lin can't provide definite evidence that it works, he doesn't see any harm. "This is interesting, actually, there's something called peptide C and they're starting to use it in nasal sprays to achieve some decongestive effects. There's no proof behind it, there haven't been studies yet, but I do have patients who use it as an over-the-counter spray and they swear by it. I think there are a lot of natural ingredients out there that probably have beneficial effects that we just don't understand yet. So, again, I don't see any harm in eating spicy foods and the whole concept of 'sweating it out' that crosses many cultures."