Flu and cold remedies

Home remedies to beat any cold or flu

It’s been a brutal winter. On top of the bone-chilling, frigid weather, many people are on their second bout with a cold this season.

You might have gone to a doctor and received the usual, sensible advice: expect to have symptoms for 7-10 days; get lots of rest; drink plenty of water; and treat the symptoms. Antibiotics do not help in this case, and they can cause side effects.

Now you’re stuck at home, sniffling and feeling crummy. You have a runny or stuffy nose, maybe a sore throat, you’re sneezing and coughing. You undoubtedly have that resting and water-drinking down, so let’s talk about treating the symptoms.

With all this time on your hands you can try some cold and flu home remedies, time tested and grandma-recommended. Some may work for you, others not so much. Recently we tried a handful of these home remedies and asked Houston Methodist primary care physician Dr. Natalie Dryden to assess each one.

First we tried a hot toddy, a mixture of warm water, honey and whiskey or rum in small but roughly equal amounts, topped with a bit of lemon juice. “Warm beverages can soothe a sore throat and many patients find them useful,” Dryden said. “Adding alcohol in small amounts is not likely harmful but more than one alcoholic drink a day can suppress the immune system.”

Avoid alcohol when sick, as it suppresses your immune system, prolonging recovery Click To Tweet

Then we heated up some chicken soup. “It may help, as it can act as a mild anti-inflammatory and helps temporarily speed the movement of mucus,” Dryden said.

Next it was time for a hot, steamy shower. The doctor said, “The steam may help moisturize mucous membranes and temporarily ease congestion.”

Neti pot
While Neti pots can be effective for treating cold and flu symptoms, make sure you fill them with bottled or distilled water.

We also tried a nasal irrigation system, with a Neti pot and saline. Dryden said these are typically safe to use and effective in clearing congestion and stuffiness. “Some people find the saline to be a nasal irritant so it may not be for everyone,” she added. If you do use a system of this kind, remember to use distilled or boiled water to prevent infections.

Gargling with salt water helped our throat discomfort temporarily, and we also tried a warm compress for sinus congestion.

Dryden stressed that the success of any one of these strategies will depend on the person. “If it doesn’t help,” she added, “at least it won’t hurt.”

We paid a visit to the drugstore and took a look at some over-the-counter cold and flu remedies. The sheer number of products available made our head spin.

First question: antihistamine or decongestant? “Antihistamines can reduce runny nose and sneezing but used alone these tend to have more side effects, such as sleepiness and dry mouth, than benefits,” Dryden said.

An medication combining antihistamine with a decongestant (pseudoephedrine, found in the product Allegra D) can be effective in reducing congestion, runny nose and sneezing. This may not be for everyone; it can raise blood pressure, so those with hypertension should avoid this compound.

An antihistamine/decongestant combo can reduce cold symptoms, but may raise blood pressure Click To Tweet

Dryden said expectorants and cough suppressants both have shown medium benefit and medicated nasal sprays (containing cromolyn sodium or ipratropium bromide) also have shown some benefit and can be a substitute for pseudoephedrine.

She cited studies that showed that vitamin C/D/E supplements have no effect on colds. Zinc has been controversial; it showed a reduction of symptoms in some trials but had some serious side effects. So serious, in fact, that the FDA has issued warnings about zinc products and Dryden does not recommend their use.

There’s a lot of winter left, and much more cold and flu to come. If you haven’t been infected, congratulations. Keep washing your hands, eating healthy foods and laying off the alcohol. Get a flu shot, too.

Denny Angelle

Denny Angelle

Senior Editor at Houston Methodist
Denny Angelle is a senior editor at Houston Methodist. A former journalist, his work has appeared in a number of publications including Boysí Life, the Houston Chronicle, USA Today and Time.
Denny Angelle

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Denny Angelle

Denny Angelle is a senior editor at Houston Methodist. A former journalist, his work has appeared in a number of publications including Boysí Life, the Houston Chronicle, USA Today and Time.