Alternative MedicineModern MythologyScience

Modern Mythology: Curing the Cold and Flu

Here on campus, it seems to be time for the annual waves of illness to sweep through. Nearly everyone has a cough or a case of the sniffles.  The free flu shot clinics have started, lasting for the next month. Students are trying to figure out at what point to go to the overworked student care center. Most are listing off their own home remedies at, supposedly, will make a cold disappear and keep you from getting sick. But, do any of these work?

1. Vitamin C: This seems to be the go-to remedy for the common cold. At the first sign of the sniffles, many people reach for the orange juice and the giant chewable vitamin C supplements. However, it turns out there’s very little evidence suggesting that adding more vitamin C to your diet helps prevent illness. According to a 2007 study, taking a high dose of vitamin C every day might shorten the duration of your cold by 1 day. In other studies, it was shown to be as effective as a placebo.

That all being said, though, vitamin C is still an important nutrient, acting as an antioxidant (a molecule that binds free radical oxygen, which can cause corrosion of tissue molecules) and maintaining many vital tissues in the body. But in extremely high doses (over 2000 mg daily in adults), it can lead to kidney stones, nausea, and other dangerous side effects. So, there’s really no benefit to bingeing on vitamin C as the cold and flu season starts.

2. Chicken Noodle Soup: When I was growing up, my mom would always give me soup and saltines when I was sick. I expect the same is true for many of you. It’s the housewife’s fix-all for illness. But surely, such age-old wisdom must be an old wives’ tale, right?

Actually, some studies suggest that chicken noodle soup actually does help. A study published in the medical journal Chest suggested that the chicken broth may help fight inflammation. The warm liquid helps to soothe a sore throat, and also reduces mucus congestion. And it’s a comfort food, helping you psychologically feel better. So, go for it

3. Airborne and similar supplements: Airborne, like many other “immune boosters,” is full of read flags. It claims to prevent colds and stop airborne germs. And, it was developed by a schoolteacher. Not a medical doctor or a nutritionist. A teacher. In 2007, the Center for Science in the Public Interest evaluated the product, and determined there was “little to no evidence that the product works.” On top of that, it contains dangerously high levels of vitamin A, which can cause toxicity and a whole host of unpleasant symptoms. Be very cautious with this sort of “immune booster” supplement.  They most likely won’t help, and they could cause a lot of harm.

4. Hot Tea: Hot tea probably won’t cure your cold, but it definitely could help you feel better. Like chicken noodle soup, the warm liquid will help soothe a sore throat, reduce congestion, reduce dehydration, and warm you up, all of which go into making you more comfortable while sick.

5. Antibiotics: Yeah, yeah, this isn’t really a home remedy. However, it’s important to note that using antibiotics is a big no-no for colds and the flu. Antibiotics are designed to kill certain bacteria that cause dangerous infections. However, both the cold and the flu are caused by viruses, which won’t respond to antibiotics. Plus, taking antibiotics incorrectly may help create “superbugs”, bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. This is because the only bacteria that will survive are those that are immune to the antibiotic. If taking repeatedly when there isn’t an infection, these resistant bacteria will flourish, as all their competitors are eliminated. Later on, you may get an infection that was once treatable using antibiotics, but is now immune, causing a potentially life-threatening illness. There are some anti-viral medications, which can serve as a treatment for colds and the flu. Before taking any of these medications, though, talk to your doctor. They have the expertise necessary to help you get better the most efficiently.

There’s a whole host of additional natural and home remedies, many with dubious evidence. The CSPI has a pamphlet and a webpage with some more detailed information on some of these. If you have any questions, again, talk to a doctor. A few home remedies may really help; most probably won’t hurt, but a few could. In general, washing your hands, eating well, staying hydrated, and getting enough sleep are going to be your best defense against the fall bugs. These are the things that keep your immune system in peak performance, and you healthy and happy.

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Ali Marie

Ali Marie

Ali Marie is a recent Master's of Education graduate, and is now venturing back into the world of non-traditional education, as an outreach program leader at a children's museum. Her interests vary widely, but include board games, music, dinosaurs, and science as a whole.

You can find Ali on Twitter, @ascientifica.

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