The flu: Folk cures make you feel better

Remedies: Symptoms of colds and flu often respond to such homey things as chicken soup, honey and pungent foodstuffs.

January 10, 1999|By Rosie Mestel | Rosie Mestel,Los Angeles Times

When colds and flu lay loved ones low, venerated family matriarchs the world over step in with their trusty home remedies, but we're never sure whether they work.

Scientific journals aren't exactly stuffed with studies testing the efficacy of chewing garlic or gargling with horseradish-laced water, but medical professionals have explanations for why some of these therapies might help us feel less ghastly:

* Chicken soup. The broth has a medical history dating to the 12th century, when the Jewish philosopher-physician Maimonides prescribed it for asthmatics to help clear their bronchial tubes. This makes some sense, and not just for asthmatics. Since fluids are lost via runny noses, fever sweats and diarrhea that can accompany flu and colds, drinking soup (and fluids in general) helps keep the body hydrated. Phlegm becomes less sticky and more easily coughed out.

But that's not all. Steam from the soup helps moisten dry, irritated airways (though humidifiers and vaporizers do a better job). Heat from the soup is a blessed relief for a dry, stuffy schnoz: In one lovely study, scientists measured how fast patients' noses ran when they were given chicken soup or hot or cold water to drink -- and found that chicken soup increased "nasal mucosal velocity," as they termed it, best of all.

If you're going the chicken-soup route, you might want to lace the broth with hot peppers, or perhaps you'd like to drink some ginger tea or gargle with a mixture of grated horseradish, water and honey -- an old Russian remedy.

* Ginger, radish, pepper: All contain pungent chemicals that will get the lining of your nose cranking out liquid, unstuffing it and flushing the virus from your body.

What's more, the intense spicy heat gently toasts the throat, masking that miserable ache. It's the same principle that lies behind those old-time poultices of hot mustard or onion, and more modern treatments such as mentholated lozenges or rubdowns with camphor, alcohol or eucalyptus. Your body feels a "hot" or "cold" spot: This distracts your mind from your sore throat or lungs. As a bonus, the odor of these penetrating oils easily reaches your lungs, giving the illusion, if not the reality, that your airways are now clearer.

* Throat-soothers: Folk remedies sometimes soothe the throat by coating it with a slime. There's honey slime, as in the Russian radish remedy, and that old classic, a hot drink of honey and lemon. Then there's slippery-elm slime, from bark of the slippery-elm tree, which, when chewed, releases a mucous-like substance.

* Garlic cloves: Garlic is a treasure trove of potent antibacterial chemicals once it enters our bodies. Colds and flu, of course, are caused by viruses. But often a cold can usher in a secondary bacterial infection, dragging out the misery extra days or weeks.

Today's garlic tea and odorless garlic tablets and capsules are the modern-day equivalent of a centuries-old folk remedy.

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