As a little boy, Thomas Cacciola remembers that whenever he caught a cold he would get daubed with Vicks VapoRub, weighed down with mustard plasters, and spoon-fed hot and pungent chicken soup. Today, half a century later, much has changed – the boy grew up and became a physician. But much has remained the same. Dr. Cacciola, former section chief of internal medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center and now in private practice in Paramus, still uses and recommends old-time remedies whenever he, a family member or a patient catches a cold. Cacciola specializes in holistic and preventive medicine.
A common cold is the result of a simple respiratory virus, of which more than 200 different types exist. We're all familiar with its misery-inducing symptoms: runny nose, mild fever and the occasional cough. And there's still no cure. The widely accepted modern-day RX? Drink plenty of fluids and get plenty of rest.
Beyond this, though, many folk remedies passed down through the ages also make some medical sense.
1. Turn on the shower and breathe in warm steam. Why? According to Cacciola, the optimal temperature for viruses is in the low 90s. They actually die when heated above 98.6 degrees (which is one of the reasons why our bodies turn feverish when fighting off an infection).
2. Wear a sweater. Now, the notion that cold weather itself can cause a cold is, in fact, an old wives' tale. Most viruses die when exposed to the cold. But grandma was right about the sweater. If your body gets chilled below its optimal temperature of 98.6 because you're not wearing proper gear in cold weather, your immune system will become stressed.
3. Chicken soup, chicken soup, chicken soup! The heat and steam from the soup are soothing and might even kill some of those cold viruses. If you make it with plenty of garlic and onions, you're adding proven germicides. Toss in some ginger and you'll also reduce inflammation. Throw in some horseradish or even hot peppers to help stimulate the mucus flow.
4. Soothe yourself with yogurt. And if you can stomach it while sniffly, try some kimchi, kefir, pickles and other fermented foods. Stuffed full of "good bacteria," or probiotics, those foods can help replenish your body's supply of good bacteria.
5. Spend some time each day in the sunshine. Even 10 minutes a day may allow your body to make enough vitamin D to keep you healthy.
6. Eat an orange. "There is good evidence that large doses of vitamin C help with infection," Cacciola says.
7. Rub your congested chest with some Vicks VapoRub. The rub is made of germ killers like eucalyptus oil, camphor and menthol, and because it's oil based, it will be absorbed into the skin, close to your lungs, to help kill the virus that lingers there.
8. Soothe your throat with honey. Either by itself or in a nice hot cup of tea (which has lots of healthy antioxidants in it), honey kills germs and helps thin mucus.
Cautiously consider making up an old-fashioned mustard plaster and placing that on your chest for a bit. Combine one part dry mustard to three parts white flour, mix it with enough water to make a paste, and wrap it in a clean washcloth or cloth diaper. Place it on your chest for about 15 minutes, removing it when the skin starts turning red. Mustard is a powerful vasodilator, which means it opens up the blood vessels, allowing more blood to reach the congestion. The blood contains white blood cells, which will fight off infection, Cacciola says. Be careful, though – if you leave the plaster on for too long, the skin can begin to blister and burn.