Here are the cold and flu remedies that actually work
An evidence-based guide to surviving your holiday bug.
Cold weather doesn’t literally make you sick, but the winter season does indeed make you more prone to catching a bad cold. Chilly conditions mean you spend more time indoors, where bacteria and viruses are more likely to linger in the air and on surfaces you touch, and the drop in temperature leaves your mucus membranes dry, irritated, and more vulnerable to infection.
The holiday season can be particularly rough on the ol’ immune system, what with all the traveling and hanging out with far-flung relatives and their exotic germs. And let’s be honest, you’re probably not taking the best care of yourself either—drinking, eating lots of unhealthy food, staying up late.
So if you’re sliding into the holiday season with a nasty cold in tow, you can bet you’re not alone. Here are some evidence-based tips for nipping that virus in the bud before it interferes with your holiday fun (or with the mountain of work you’re supposed to finish before the party starts).
Actually take a break
The simplest remedy is also the most effective, and probably the most disappointing. If you had time to rest, dammit, you wouldn’t be Googling around for quick cold remedies.
But listen, friends: you’ve got to get some rest. Really.
Aside from the fact that depriving yourself of sleep is going to make you feel generally crappy anyway, your immune system does some of its best work while you snooze. If you’re not getting enough shut-eye (for most adults, around 7-8 hours is the sweet spot) your body just isn’t going to do as good of a job at fighting off infections. Period.
And if you wake up still feeling crummy, you should stay home from work if at all possible. One 2014 study found that a pathogen placed on a single doorknob could essentially infiltrate an entire office building within a matter of hours. Surfaces in the break room were particularly vulnerable to the spread of viruses.
If you absolutely must go into the workplace (or to a family gathering for the holidays) bring some hand sanitizer with you. You usually want to avoid killing off the microbes that live on your skin. But if you’re exposing innocent bystanders to your cold or flu, the least you can do is give yourself a good Purell rubdown after any contact between your hands and your mucus-y bits.
Avoid alcohol—or at least pick your poison carefully
Fevers and mucus production leave you dehydrated, which is why it’s so important to flood your system with fluids when you’re ill. But excessive alcohol will dampen your immune system and dehydrate you, so don’t guzzle wine or beer just because ’tis the season.
What you really want is a hot drink. Some research suggests that a hot cup of tea or lemon water will help decongest you with its steam. You can also try making a hot beverage heavy on turmeric. This spice definitely has some anti-inflammatory properties in cells in the lab, though it’s unclear just how well they translate into concrete results inside the human body. But even if your potion of choice doesn’t work as well as you might hope, studies show that the placebo effect of a hot beverage is nothing to sneeze at. If you feel cozy and comforted, you’ll feel better.
That brings us to the one nip of alcohol you might be able to justify whilst suffering from the sniffles. The alcohol in a hot toddy—hot water, lemon, and honey spiked with spirits, usually whiskey—almost certainly doesn’t help you fight off the flu. But as long as you’re using a reasonable amount (a couple of tablespoons should do it), some doctors say the special ingredient won’t hurt. So if it makes you feel calmer and helps soothe you to sleep, go ahead and enjoy a “medicinal” cocktail.
As for eggnog, well, the warning against overindulgence in alcohol still applies. But on the bright side, the idea that dairy makes you produce thick mucus has been pretty thoroughly debunked. A glass shouldn’t make your cold symptoms any worse.
Speaking of hot, liquid comfort: soup can’t hurt
There isn’t exactly concrete evidence that a bowl of chicken soup can make your cold shorter or less severe, but some studies do support its healing powers. It may have anti-inflammatory properties.
And just like the hot teas and toddies mentioned above, soup has the ability to warm up your congested regions and potentially help dislodge some mucus in the process. It also surely carries a hefty placebo effect, since so many of us grow up associating the liquid gold with comfort and healing. As a final bonus, chicken soup (especially of the homemade variety) is a balanced, nutritious meal. Eating lots of fruits and veggies and other wholesome foodstuffs is an important part of getting well, so a bowl of chicken noodle is a good way to offset your diet of Christmas cookies and wine.
Soup is definitely not going to do you any harm, and it may help bolster your body’s healing abilities on several fronts. It’s also a great place to sneak in a few cloves of garlic. Many people think garlic has such strong antimicrobial properties as to kill the viruses in your body. The evidence hasn’t really come to support that yet, so swallowing raw garlic isn’t worth it. But eating some garlicky soup? I mean, who cares if it does any good? That’s just delicious.
Be kind to your mucus membranes
Gargling salt water (roughly 1/4 to 1/2 a teaspoon in a glass of warm water) can soothe the inflammation in your throat, improving symptoms like cough, pain, and post-nasal drip. Some folks swear that gargling with (or drinking) apple cider vinegar is the way to go, but that acid isn’t going to kill off viruses for you, and it might actually irritate your delicate throat in the process. So stick with warm, salty water instead.
Keeping everything moist with the help of a humidifier can also reduce irritation and potentially loosen mucus build-up. Warm steam can help too, though doctors warn that trying to use hot showers or pots of boiling water to loosen your gunk can actually just lead you to burn yourself.
There’s no harm in a sinus rinse either, though you should make sure you’re using filtered water to avoid replacing your cold viruses with brain-eating amoebas. And keep in mind that if you obsessively rinse your sinuses multiple times a day, you’ll likely just end up irritating the tissues in your nose and making yourself feel crummier.
Don’t run for the antibiotics
When you get sick at an inconvenient time, it can be tempting to rush to urgent care and demand a microbe-murdering wonder drug. But please, please, please don’t try to get antibiotics just because you’re feeling under the weather.
Chances are good you have a cold or flu, which can’t be treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics kill bacteria, but colds and flus are caused by viruses.
If you’re really worried that you might have a sinus infection or strep throat (both of which are caused by bacteria) seek a doctor’s advice. But if your symptoms feel like a typical cold or flu, give yourself a few days to fight it off. Antibiotics won’t help, and they’ll throw all the microbes in your gut out of whack. Do you really want to take a useless medication that gives you diarrhea all through the holiday festivities? I hope not.
What pills should I pop?
Cold medicine won’t cure you, but it can alleviate your symptoms. So whatever brand or formula of medication seems to work for you is the best bet.
Unfortunately, vitamin C doesn’t seem to do much, and neither does echinacea. But zinc lozenges may help you get better, if you start taking them regularly within 24 hours of your first symptoms. It’s not clear whether they actually help you fight off the virus or simply reduce inflammation in your throat. And zinc nasal swabs just seem to kill your sense of smell, so don’t try to get all fancy.