Colds and the flu tend to show up with dreary regularity. Here’s a look at some remedies people around the world have used to combat congestion, body aches, fever, and sore throat from a bad cold or flu. Which ones might actually help, and which are more charming folktale than cure?
Originating in Russia and the Ukraine, this hot drink is the result of whisking together an egg yolk and a teaspoon of honey or sugar. Pour the mixture into a half-cup of milk that’s been heated with a tablespoon of unsalted butter. (For an adult version, you could add a slug of rum or cognac.)
No studies measure the efficacy of gogol mogol. However, the silky consistency of the egg may ease sore throat scratchiness. And the L-tryptophan in hot milk can help promote sleep when it’s paired with a carbohydrate like cereal.
People burn Ai Ye (Artemisia argyi orwormwood) in some households in China. Burning the dried leaves of this plant is said to have an antiseptic effect. It’s believed to prevent cold or flu germs from spreading and to defend against further infection.
Ai Ye leaves have antibacterial properties and are used in many forms of traditional Chinese medicine. However, it’s best to avoid inhaling any kind of smoke when you have a cold or flu. Smoke acts as a respiratory irritant and can restrict your airways even more.
This so-called remedy calls for greasing your throat with lard or chicken fat and then placing dirty socks around it. The logic behind this one is hard to pin down, but the idea may have started in England.
The treatment may have induced sweating, which was believed to help rid the body of germs. The socks also likely labeled people with serious throat ailments. Before powerful drugs and vaccines could wipe out strep and prevent diphtheria, the dirty socks might have warned others to steer clear.
If you fancy a variation of chicken soup for your cold, follow the Hong Kong custom of downing lizard soup. The simple recipe calls for dried lizards, yams, and Chinese dates simmered in water. You won’t find dried lizards in the supermarket, but a health practitioner specializing in Chinese herbal medicine may have a supply handy.
No studies compare the benefits of chicken soup with lizard soup. Still, hot soup in a water-based broth helps replace fluids lost from sweating, blowing your nose, and coughing. It can also help loosen mucus.
Research in the United Kingdom measured the effect on coughing of theobromine, an ingredient in cocoa. Compared with codeine, theobromine was more effective in suppressing cough. The researchers think that theobromine acts on the vagus nerve, which spurs coughing.
The study is too small to confirm chocolate as a cough remedy. However, a cup of cocoa made with low-fat milk and dark chocolate (at least 70 percent cacao) offers chocolate’s antioxidant benefit. Plus, the hot milk can have a sleep-inducing effect.
In Japan, people rely on sour pickled plum, or umeboshi, to prevent and heal colds, flus, and other illnesses. Umeboshi actually isn’t a plum at all, but a variety of apricot. It can be eaten plain if you like the pungency, or steeped in hot tea with ginger and lemon.
The medicinal quality of umeboshi stems from its reported antibacterial effects. However, no scientific studies support this claim. Umeboshi may have a placebo effect as a traditional comfort food for the Japanese.
Turnips have a lot going for them: they pack a wallop of vitamin C and are also full of vitamins A and B. In Iran, people with colds often eat a plate of cooked, mashed turnips. Besides delivering plenty of vitamin C, the root vegetable is believed to act as an expectorant. This means it may help loosen mucus and quiet a stubborn cough.
A mix of European and African traditions led to this Texan remedy for chest congestion. Before the age of urgent care clinics, sheep or cattle tallow (fat) was cheap and readily available. It was often used for skin ailments and to keep a deep cough from turning into pneumonia.
This remedy calls for a small amount of tallow to be wrapped in flannel cloth. Herbs are commonly added to the tallow, like mint to clear breathing, mustard to add more warmth, or other cultural variations. Then it’s warmed and placed on the chest. The TLC of mom or grandma placing the warm cloth on your chest may be comforting, and the warm poultice helps loosen mucous.
While there’s no cure-all for the common cold or flu, there’s also no shortage of imaginative remedies across the world and the ages.
There's always more research being done on how to best fight off or prevent colds and flus. Also remember that regular exercise reduces a person's risk for cold and flu. Vitamins and supplements may help, as well.