Which Of These 9 Old Wives' Tales To Cure Colds Actually Work?

Grandma was right about the curative powers of chicken soup. But what else?

December 5, 2017
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A bad cold can stop us in our tracks, and people will try anything—from over-the-counter meds to a string of old wives’ tales—to keep symptoms at bay. But even if your mom swore by chicken soup or orange juice, are you actually solving the problem by following her advice?

We asked experts to weigh in on which old wives’ tales actually cure colds and which ones are just fanciful stories—and sometimes, their answers surprised us.

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garlic bulbs
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Garlic

Grandmas around the world tell you to add a hefty dose of garlic to whatever you’re cooking to stave off colds: in Japan, there’s even a common household remedy calling for a combination of garlic and rice wine taken as a shot to cure the winter sniffles.

Related: 6 Really Easy Ways You Can Make Your Garlic Last Much Longer

If it’s so widespread, it’s for good reason: Alexander Thermos, DC, DO, notes that garlic contains multiple powerful antioxidants and has antimicrobial properties, which can keep viral infections from taking hold. It’s also a natural decongestant and expectorant, keeping your nose and throat from getting blocked up with mucus. One double-blind, placebo-controlled study even showed that a garlic supplement can help prevent colds.

But before you go cooking up a garlicky pasta sauce, there is one caveat: the cold-fighting properties of garlic are best when consumed raw.

Related: I Gave Up Snotting Into Paper Tissues For Cloth Hankies 3 Months Ago—Here's What I Learned

Thermos recommends taking a teaspoon of raw chopped garlic or even chewing on a whole garlic clove to keep symptoms at bay. This might seem unpalatable (and just plain mean to your neighbors), but as Pedram Shojai, OMD, author of The Art of Stopping Time notes, at least this way, “People will leave you alone so you can rest up.”

hot chile peppers
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Hot Chiles

If you hail from Mexico, chiles might be a cold remedy you’ve heard of before. Our experts, however, aren’t entirely decided on the matter. While Thermos notes that the capsaicin that gives chiles their kick can act as a decongestant, and naturopathic doctor Serena Goldstein says that they can “certainly loosen you up,” Gustavo Ferrer, MD, FCCP, a pulmonologist and author of Cough Cures notes that there is no evidence linking chiles to curing the common cold or any respiratory problems.

That said, Shojai notes that chiles are high in vitamin C, which can boost your immune system and might keep you safe from winter bugs. “They also have a diaphoretic property, which makes you sweat,” he says, noting that sweating out a cold is a common strategy in Chinese medicine.

Related: 7 Supplements To Help You Through Cold And Flu Season

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hot toddy
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Whiskey

If you had an Irish grandma growing up, chances are she tried this home remedy on you…but sadly, our experts don’t recommend partaking in whiskey, at least not to cure a cold.

“The combination of a teaspoon of whiskey mixed with a teaspoon of honey and lemon has long been used as a cough suppressant by pediatricians (especially in the 1940s to 1960s),” says Thermos. “Too much emphasis, however, is on the use of the whiskey (relaxing effects) and not enough emphasis on the honey/lemon combination (soothes the irritated throat).” (Here's how to get the biggest health benefits from honey.)

Ferrer even notes that whiskey can lower your body’s natural defenses, making it harder to fight off a cold or an infection.

Related: 6 Foods Nutritionists Eat To Get Over A Cold Faster

“Alcohol dilates blood vessels to help break up congestion, but it’s not the first line I'd recommend,” says Goldstein. “Alcohol is also a diuretic and pull fluids and important vitamins and minerals from the body.”

Seeing as hydration is extremely important when you’re ill, trying whiskey to help your cold may cause more harm than good. “The evaporation and total fluid loss during an infection is quite impressive,” says Thermos. “Many signs and symptoms can be addressed with hydration alone.” He recommends getting about ½ ounce of water per pound of body weight in addition to other fluids like juice, soup, or tea… but unfortunately, no whiskey.

Skip the whiskey and try an immunity-boosting tincture instead:

chicken soup
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Chicken Soup

Affectionately dubbed “Jewish penicillin,” chicken soup is a common home remedy for colds in many cultures—and according to our experts, for good reason. Ferrer goes so far as to call it “one of the best remedies” for the common cold.

“The electrolyte filled salty broth helps thin the mucus,” says Thermos, who also notes that chicken soup is rich in the amino acid cysteine, which helps the body produce anti-inflammatory glutathione, thus soothing irritated throats and bronchial tubes.

Related: 6 Science-Backed Natural Ways To Ease Your Next Cold

Eating soup also puts less pressure on your digestive system while still getting you many of the essential vitamins and minerals you need while you’re under the weather. “Soups and broths help ‘pre-digest’ your food for you,” says Shojai. “That energy saved can keep troops on the front lines battling the germs.” If our experts’ appreciation of this home remedy isn’t enough, this study delves into the ways in which chicken soup can improve defenses and ward off winter sniffles.

orange juice
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Orange Juice

Vitamin C-rich OJ is one of the first cold remedies you likely reach for when you feel a cold coming on, but as far as our experts are concerned, you’d be better off getting your vitamins—and your fluids—elsewhere.

Related: 5 Ways To Eat More Immune-Boosting Vitamin C

A glass of orange juice only contains about 100 to 150mg of the doctor-recommended 2000mg per day, according to Thermos, and it generally contains more sugar than is worth your while; extra sugar, he notes, can suppress immune system response.

“I prefer having patients eat oranges so they temper the sugar hit with fiber,” says Shojai.

Thermos doesn’t even recommend citrus at all. “In many people, it seems to ‘thicken’ the mucus,” he says. “I prefer my patients to use unsweetened or freshly juiced apples as a source of juice containing vitamin C, in addition to taking the oral supplements.” Stick to plain water instead of OJ, and eat lots of vitamin-rich fruits and veggies while you’re under the weather. (Here are 7 unique winter fruits to try.)

 
 
hot water with lemon and honey
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Hot Water With Lemon And Honey

This soothing beverage is a great option, according to our experts, first and foremost because it brings much-needed hydration. “It is very important that the patients stay hydrated during an infection,” says Thermos. If not, he notes, “mucus becomes thicker and can form mucus plugs which can indeed lead to a more serious (bacterial) infection.”

But the lemon and honey don’t just add flavor. Raw, local honey lends natural antimicrobial benefits, according to Goldstein. “It can help soothe the throat too, especially if there's irritation from coughing,” she says. “Lemon,” she continues, “Provides an acidic environment (not favorable to viruses).”

Related: 5 Best Herbs For Colds And Flu And How To Use Them Effectively

But Shojai is quick to note that while this may help with the symptoms, “It won’t win the war.” Use it to get cozy, he recommends, but be sure to get adequate nutrition and vitamins, too.

ginger root
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Ginger Tea

Ginger tea, on the other hand, is a remedy Shojai can get behind. “It’s a bit of a diaphoretic,” he says, “It'll help you sweat and will also heat the digestion, which can help fight bugs and move energy in the body.” Goldstein agrees, noting that ginger promotes circulation and “ultimately helps your body heal.”

Related: 7 Surprising Benefits Of Eating More Ginger (Goodbye, Migraine!)

Thermos recommends adding ginger, garlic, and chiles to chicken soup for a “potent” cold-fighting brew, while Goldstein suggests adding ginger to your hot water with lemon and honey. Either way, ginger will also help any stomach or digestive symptoms that may have come along with your cold.

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Saltwater Gargle

This might have been unpleasant when your parents made you do it, but according to our experts, a saltwater gargle is one of the best natural cold remedies. “This is often overlooked and super effective,” says Shojai. “Double down on a nasal flush (in nose, out mouth) with hypertonic (super salty) water, and you can kill bugs, plumb out the phlegm, and turn the tide on your cold.” (See other natural remedies for a sore throat.)

Goldstein notes that, like lemon, saltwater creates an acidic environment that will keep viruses from thriving, thus helping your body fight off the unwelcome bug. But Thermos warns against overuse of this method. “Here is a case when 'more' is not better,” he says. “Too much salt can have an irritating effect on the throat.” He recommends about ½ to 1 teaspoon dissolved in an 8- to 12-ounce glass of warm water.

 
 
socks
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Cold Socks

The old wives’ tale of walking around barefoot certainly won’t bring about a cold. In fact, keeping your feet cool can actually help cure your cold—if you go about it properly. Goldstein recommends soaking cotton socks in cold water right before bed and then putting them in the freezer for five to ten minutes. “Put them on, and then put a pair of wool socks on top, and go to sleep,” she says.

While it’s not recommended to use this method if you have circulation problems, in healthy individuals, this can help circulate congestion and push your lymphatic and immune systems into overdrive, helping your body fight off the cold for good.