Fighting a Cold, the Old Way

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

It started as a pesky cold -- not surprising given the winter season, two back-to-back cross-country trips, little sleep and mingling with hundreds of people.

But then the chills, aches and dry hacking began. Any illusions of toughing it out in the office were shattered when a colleague wandered over to ask if I had been tested for whooping cough. (A booster shot last year eliminated the chance that might be the culprit.)

Clearly we -- yes, my husband was sick, too -- needed relief.

Science can do a lot these days. Curing the common cold is not yet on its list of accomplishments. That doesn't stop Americans, however, from shelling out billions of dollars annually to try to relieve runny noses, sneezes, blocked nasal passages and coughs.

There's growing concern that these products are not only ineffective but sometimes dangerous, especially for the young: About 7,000 children wind up in emergency rooms yearly from taking products for colds, according to a new report published the journal Pediatrics. In January, the Food and Drug Administration urged parents not to give these products to children younger than 2. The FDA is considering whether to further expand that restriction.

Interviews with cold experts through the years have taught me that decongestant sprays work for nasal congestion, provided they are limited to two days or less of use. Acetaminophen, aspirin and ibuprofen can help control fever, headache and joint pain. But it was the gut-wrenching cough that really sidelined us.

Hot, steamy showers helped. But who can spend the day under running water? Same goes for standing over a pot of steam. Even our doctor agreed there wasn't much effective to offer besides rest.

So I wondered what remedies had soothed our ancestors long before the advent of dextromethorphan, an antitussive, or cough suppressant, found in many over-the-counter products. Constance Carter and her colleagues at the Library of Congress kindly provided a dozen sources for concoctions used by Native Americans, herbalists and others. My favorite: "The American Frugal Housewife," written by a "Mrs. Child" in 1835 and dedicated to those "who are not ashamed of economy."

What did our predecessors use? Some things that aren't remotely appealing, such as a few drops of skunk oil on the chest (not a chance -- even if I knew where to find it!). There were also several topical concoctions involving turpentine (nope!) and plenty of mustard plasters (made with powdered mustard and a cloth placed on the chest.) Okay, so perhaps coughing is not so bad after all.

In 1904, Emily Holt, author of the "Complete Housekeeper," recommended eating Indian turnip root ("hotter than fire, but healing") for "urgent" cases or adding it to an elixir of maple syrup and brandy.

That sounded similar to a remedy my father sometimes whipped up for us as kids: bourbon, honey and a little lemon. (If you're tempted to try this, don't give honey to children 2 or younger because of botulism concerns; also, alcohol is not recommended for children.)

My father's remedy still works temporarily. He laughed knowingly when I told him. So does the hot toddy my husband made with tea, freshly squeezed orange and lemon juice, bourbon and honey.

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