Natural relief from spring colds

Suffering with a little pre-summer cold or flu? Why not try a prescription for chicken soup instead of a drug.

As the medical community strives to combat antibiotic resistance and the emergence of "super germs," natural remedies - from tea with honey to Echinacea - are gaining acceptance as the treatment of choice during the season of sniffles.

"Besides the idea of antibiotic resistance, most colds and the flu are caused by a virus, which antibiotics won't help," says Dr James Dillard, assistant clinical professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

"But," he adds, "there are a lot of home remedies that, while they may not have the most rigorous science behind them, can be soothing and very helpful."

Among the oldest, and perhaps the wisest, is Grandma's favourite - chicken soup. Not only is it comfort food of the highest order, experts say there is some real science behind the cure.

"When compared with 'pseudo soup' - a hot liquid that contains the same amount of proteins, sugars, carbohydrates, but not made from chicken - studies show chicken soup does have some mysterious healing properties over and above just being a hot, nutritious liquid," says Dillard.

Those healing properties became a little less mysterious with the publication of studies last year in the journal Chest. They documented that chicken soup stopped the movement of neutrophils, white blood cells that stimulate the release of mucus. Immediately following infection with a virus, the body moves large amounts of neutrophils to the site of the inflammation, causing a rush of symptoms that can range from a runny nose to severe chest congestion. Inhibiting that movement, say experts, may be one reason why chicken soup makes you feel better.

If soup is not your thing, you might try drowning your sniffles in a cup of hot tea with honey - particularly good for a sore throat.

"The steam and the hot liquid itself can help decrease congestion, plus the tea acts as a mild anti-inflammatory," Dillard says. Honey has also been shown to have mild antiseptic qualities and could help control the local growth of bacteria.

Still another favourite is the salt water gargle - one-quarter teaspoon of salt to about 200ml of warm water.

"It can stop the pain of a sore throat almost immediately. Salt water solution mimics what is found naturally in the body and provides an overall comforting feeling to irritated tissue," says Dr William Rifkin, a primary care physician at Nassau University Medical Centre. Again, the warmth, he says, can help break up congestion and that can make breathing easier.

If you're still more comfortable getting your cold treatments from the medicine cabinet instead of the kitchen cabinet, don't overlook the power of herbal and mineral supplements. Among the most effective is tincture of Echinacea.

"There have been many studies to show it works, but many people don't take it the right way, which is why they don't always get results," says Dillard.

Using it daily as a preventive, say experts, won't help - it begins losing its effectiveness after about 10 days. Instead, "take one large dose at the first symptom of a cold and you can cut duration significantly," suggests Dillard.

Master herbalist Andrea Candee adds, however, that you should use only tincture (a liquid form) of Echinacea - and not the dry pill or capsule form.

"You need the alcohol content found in a tincture to extract the healing chemicals from the herb," Candee says.

Zinc in the form of a nasal spray is also getting higher marks from doctors these days.

"When sprayed locally in the nose, there are more convincing studies to show zinc can decrease the duration of cold symptoms," says Dillard.

If you're still convinced that it has to look, smell and taste like medicine before it can do you any good, doctors say don't overlook over-the-counter remedies to help you feel better while you are getting better.

"A cough medicine or pain reliever or fever reducer like aspirin, acetaminophen or even ibuprofen won't cure your cold, but they all go a long way in helping to relieve symptoms," Rifkin says.

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