Grandma Was Right: Many of Her Best Cold and Flu Remedies Are Medically Sound, Say Our Experts
Soothe anything that ails you with these tried-and-true relief tips, passed down by Grandma.
Mimi, Nanna, Bubbie, Abuela: Whatever you call yours, your grandmother is wise in the ways of the world—especially when you're not feeling 100 percent. She'll prescribe hot lemon water or chicken soup, and new studies show she's clearly onto something. Her practical wisdom may do more than offer comfort, but also prevent sickness and speed healing. These are the greatest tips from the Greatest Generation.
Drink honey with lemon for a sore throat.
Stirred into boiling water, these staples aren't just soothing; they can actively fight the throat irritation that comes with a cold or flu. Honey is a natural antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, properties that can help relax red, aggravated throat tissue and quiet your cough. Lemons contain vitamin C, which some studies suggest can reduce cold symptoms' duration. And the heat of the brew matters: In a 2008 study out of Cardiff University, in Wales, students with colds were given a hot drink (in this case, a quintessentially British mixture of fruit cordial and water) or the exact same tincture at room temp. While both sips relieved runny noses, coughs, and sneezes, only the hot one eased sore throats, too. The researchers suspect that, in part, the aroma of the tasty drink caused subjects to salivate more, thus lubricating their upper passageways. Regardless of the reason, "this is definitely a safe way to get some relief," says Jennifer Caudle, DO, a family physician and an associate professor of family medicine at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, in Stratford, New Jersey.
Eat chicken soup for a cold.
No matter what's in her secret recipe—egg noodles, matzo balls, or tortilla strips and a squeeze of lime—a bowlful can mitigate cold or flu symptoms, per a 2000 lab study published in CHEST, the journal of the American College of Chest Physicians. Those researchers couldn't pinpoint exactly which of the soup's ingredients to credit for the anti-inflammatory effect—theirs had chicken, onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery, parsley, salt, and pepper—but a later study published in the American Journal of Therapeutics suggests it's the chicken itself: A compound called carnosine, a component of proteins found in breast meat, appears to have the ability to fight off the flu virus in its early stages.
Swig castor oil to keep things moving.
There's no question that the stuff does its job well. So well, in fact, that in 2012 researchers at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research did a study on what makes the vegetable-seed oil such an effective laxative (and labor inducer). They found that its active compound, ricinoleic acid, binds to the smooth muscle cells in the small intestine (and similar ones in the uterus), causing them to contract—and keep contracting, till you expel what's inside. So why isn't it recommended more often these days? "It tastes terrible," says Jacqueline Wolf, MD, a gastroenterologist and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "For occasional constipation, there are many products on the market, such as Senokot or milk of magnesia, that are just as effective but much more tolerable to ingest." Another naturopath-recommended use for the oil: If you have dry eyes, tap a few drops on your lids before bed.
Slip into a warm bath for just about anything.
Hydrotherapy has been hot for millennia, ever since ancient Greek physician Hippocrates prescribed it to his patients. But scientists are now exploring why soaks seem able to relieve pain, lower fevers, and promote better sleep. Last year, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that bathing in 104-to-109-degree water 90 minutes before bed can improve our overall sleep quality and help us fall asleep 10 minutes faster by raising, then lowering, our core body temperature, which tells our circadian clock that it's lights out. (Some research also suggests a warm bath may temporarily bring a fever slightly down.) The steam, meanwhile, can help loosen sinus congestion and get mucus to start draining, says Dale Amanda Tylor, MD, an otolaryngologist and head-and-neck surgeon in Santa Barbara, California. But don't toss your regular meds yet: "When you have a temperature, you're better off taking an over-the-counter fever-reducing medication to lower it," says Caudle. As for pacifying muscle soreness and joint pain (from exercise or an oncoming cold), one theory goes like this: The water's heat causes our blood vessels to dilate, which improves circulation to tissue, which in turn reduces pain.
Eat ginger to settle your stomach.
If Grandma played hoops, this would be her slam dunk. Numerous studies have shown that the root (fresh or dried) can be as effective as over-the-counter drugs at treating nausea, motion sickness, and even vomiting. Experts think the stomach-calming properties come mainly from two compounds: gingerols, which are most abundant in raw ginger, and shogaols, which are more concentrated in dried slices or powder. While there's no official dosage, 1,000 milligrams—or about a tea-spoon of freshly grated ginger, four cups of prepackaged ginger tea, or two pieces of crystallized ginger—usually does the trick.