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.

Honey, it seems, has some special properties that coat the throat. A Penn State study published last year found it superior to dextromethorphan in controlling coughs in children.

Next, I shelled out $14 for a kosher chicken -- so much for frugality! -- and cooked chicken soup with roasted baby carrots and tomatoes, wild rice and garlic. Carrots are rich in beta carotene, which is converted by the body to Vitamin A. Tomatoes are filled with Vitamin C, good for immunity. Garlic and its cousin the onion are loaded with allicin, an antimicrobial. Steam from the chicken soup helps soothe and open bronchioles. But forget all the scientific stuff. The bottom line: It tasted great.

And still we coughed.

That brought me to "A Spoonful of Ginger: Irresistible, Health-Giving Recipes from Asian Kitchens," by Nina Simonds. There I found pear congee, purported to "cure coughing, cure throat irritation, alleviate dizziness and fever."

Eureka! I bought all the ingredients. Then reality hit. The idea of standing up to poach pears before adding them to a gruel-like rice broth seemed, well, ridiculous even to my desperate self. Most families stricken by colds would need to hire a professional chef to prepare pear congee to treat a cough. This cold clearly had gone to my brain cells, too.

So I called Paul Anderson, a naturopathic physician at Bastyr University in Seattle, who not only didn't laugh but offered some other options and reinforced the use of honey, at least for those 2 and older. Milky-white, raw, unprocessed honey seems to stick to the throat best, he said.

Other options: cherry bark extract, an antitussive found in many health-food stores. Organic Throat Coat, made by Traditional Medicinals of Sebastopol, Calif., includes the extract in a caffeine-free tea bag (about $5 for 15 bags). As its name implies, it's a bit medicinal tasting, but it was soothing.

Mint "can also have a calming effect" on the irritated nerves that help produce the cough reflex, Anderson said. Both marshmallow root ($27 per pound) and mullen -- sometimes called mullein -- (about $5 per four-ounce box) have similar action. They can be bought in dried form and steeped for tea.

Then there's black elderberry. Find it in Sambucol lozenges ($12 per bottle of 30) or in syrups in health-food stores and pharmacies. It's also available in extract ($12 per ounce) that can be added to hot or cold liquids. There's some evidence that it helps control coughs.

Now that I'm feeling a little better, I finally made that pear congee. It wasn't worth the effort. I should have remembered the old adage: Treat a cold and it lasts seven days. Leave it alone and it's gone in a week.

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