The Ultimate Cold & Flu Remedy Round-Up
Listen closely, and there's a chance you'll hear it: a stifled cough, a steady sniffle, a room-shaking sneeze. Yes, cold and flu season is in full force, and no matter where you spend your days, you're probably within close proximity of at least a few cold-ridden co-workers.
So how to you avoid contracting this modern plague? And what should you do if you get caught in its sickly clutches? Everyone has a go-to remedy, but it's hard to know which ones really work, and which are better left in the back of your grandma's medicine cabinet. As I'm currently coming out of of a flu-induced coma, I figured I'd do some research to avoid getting sick again this year. Here's my round-up of some commonly recommended ways to prevent and treat a cold or flu.
The moment anyone around me starts to sniffle, I run straight to the Walgreens next door to my house and pick up as many bottles of Airborne as I can carry. This vitamin and mineral-packed remedy (which includes Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin A, Zinc, Echinacea, Elenium, Maganese and Magnesium) comes in many different forms--sugar coated gummies, dissolvable tablets, and throat lozenges, to name a few -- and claims to be an immune supplement that will stop sickness in its tracks. This claim is disputed by doctors, and in 2006, the company had to pay $23 million to settle a lawsuit brought against it for false advertising, but look at the review section of any online store selling the stuff, and you'll find nothing paragraph after paragraph of praise for the product.
So what gives? Is Airborne a magical cure or a money-sucking hoax?
In a 2008 Slate article, Dr. Sydney Spiesel said Airborne works a lot like fairy dust--it's only effective if you believe it's going to be:
"When you take the medicine you believe in, you won't notice when your nose runs anyway, and if you forget to take it before flying, you won't remember that your trip ended in perfect health," said Spiesel.
Additionally, people often underestimate the power of the placebo effect. If you truly believe something is going to help, chances are it's going to help. Check out this fascinating episode of Radio Lab if you want to learn more about the placebo effect.
Our conclusions: Taking a daily dose of vitamins at the onset of cold and flu season certainly won't hurt your immune system, and if you've had success with this product in the past, it'll probably keep working for you. Don't splurge on the brand name stuff, though. Walgreens' store-brand Wal-Born is just as "effective" and will cost you a little under 30 percent less.
A Flu Shot
"Every time I get a flu shot, I get the flu! It's just not worth it," said the 65 percent of Americans who didn't get the vaccination last year. The flu shot gets a lot of hate for being ineffective at best, and harmful at worst, but neither of those ideas have much basis in reality.
Yes, the flu shot isn't 100 percent effective, and yes, it doesn't protect you against every single strain of flu, but the CDC estimates its effectiveness at 61 percent, which is not insignificant. Another CDC study found the vaccine was especially beneficial for children and the elderly: during flu seasons between 2010 and 2012, the flu vaccine "reduced children's risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit admission by 74 percent," and the vaccine also reduced flu-related hospitalizations among adults 50 years of age and older by 77 percent.
And although the vaccine might not protect you against every flu strain, it does protect you against the strain that researchers estimate will be the most prevalent in the upcoming flu season.
As for all the supposed "harmful side effects," there really aren't many. According to the CDC, "Almost all people who receive influenza vaccine have no serious problems from it." Occasionally you might experience slight flu-like symptoms, especially if you opt for the nasal spray over the needle, but these problems usually start right after the vaccination and rarely last long, and I think we can all agree that a few hours of light sniffling is infinitely better than a week of bed-ridden misery. That being said, there are people who can develop severe allergic reactions to the flu shot, so if you've had one in the past, or if you're allergic to eggs, make sure to talk to your doctor before getting vaccinated.
Our conclusions: Get a flu shot, people! If it doesn't work, it doesn't work, but it's cheap (or free with most healthcare plans!) and getting it could help keep you, your family and everyone at your office flu-free for the rest of the winter. Check out our post on flu shot pricing and locations for more information.
A fleshy root vegetable native to Asia, ginseng has long been a staple of Eastern medicine, but unlike so many herbal remedies, the effects of ginseng are actually well-documented, and have even been found to help prevent and treat cold and flu symptoms.
A 2014 study from Georgia State University found that ginseng is an effective weapon against both influenza and respiratory syntactical virus (RSV), an illness that infects lungs and breathing passages, and which currently has no preventative vaccine.
This study points to red ginseng, an extract of cured ginseng root, as being particularly effective for both the prevention and treatment of the flu and RSV, and according to the NYU Labgone Medical Center, taking a dose of ginseng every day can help prevent the common cold, stop the flu in its tracks, increase mental function, improve blood sugar control in diabetes patients, treat sexual dysfunction in men and may even prevent certain kinds of cancer!
Our conclusions: From what I can tell, there's really no reason not to take ginseng every day, especially if you're trying to avoid getting sick this cold and flu season. You can find this supplement at your local drugstore, or head over to Walmart, which also has a huge selection of ginseng-filled capsules, teas and extracts.
These cough-medicine cocktails have become a routine part of the average sick person's day. There are a few different versions of each, but for the most part, the formula is the same: acetaminophen to help soothe head and body aches and sore throats, dextromethorphan, a cough suppressant, and either a nasal decongestant that will keep you wide awake and sniffle free (DayQuil) or an antihistamine that will knock you out and clear out your sinuses (NyQuil).
One issue with these all-in-one kinds of cold and flu treatments is that you might be ingesting medicine for a symptom you don't have, which isn't something doctors recommend. For example, if all you have is a cough, it's probably best to stick with acetaminophen-free cough medicine instead of gulping down a big helping of NyQuil or DayQuil. It's also important to remember not to take additional pain medication when on a regiment of NyQuil or DayQuil, as this significantly increases your risk for painkiller overdose.
Our conclusions: This stuff works to curb cold and flu symptoms, but it's a temporary relief--not a cure by any means. Always make sure you don't take too much of either formula, and if you only have a few symptoms, consider treating each of them individually: take pseudoephedrine to clear up a stuffy nose and keep you awake during the day, acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen to curb a lingering sinus headache, or an antihistamine like Benadryl to make sure you can sleep soundly without having to breathe through your mouth. If you're still sold on the all-in-one remedies, remember to buy generic. At CVS, 12 oz of the name-brand is $10.49, while 12oz of the store-brand clocks in at just $7.99.
All That Stuff Your Mom Told You (Actually Works)
You might take ginseng every day, get a flu shot every year, grab Airborne when your husband comes home with a cold and treat your cold and flu symptoms with NyQuil and DayQuil, but if you ignore the basics, you're pretty much asking to get sick time and time again. What basics you ask? Why just the things your mother probably repeated every time you got sick as a kid, things like:
- "Wash your hands!" -- According to an article on WebMD, while the vaccine is the best way to prevent you from getting the flu, Dr. Rachel Orscheln, an infectious disease specialist at Washington University School of Medicine, says "the next best thing is good hand hygiene." Wash your hands with warm soap and water for 15 to 20 seconds multiple times a day, and keep hand sanitizer at the ready while on the go. Bonus tip: Regularly sanitizing your cell phone can also help keep you healthy. Try out these Green Tea Wireless Wipes, available at Amazon for just $7.02!
- "Stay warm!" -- It turns out all those extra scarf layers your mom forced you to wear on winter days might have actually saved you from a cold or two. According to a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, cold and flu viruses can find safe haven in a chilly nose. Listen to this awesome report on NPR's Science Friday for more info, and keep those noses warm!
- "Drink more water!" -- Staying hydrated is always important, but it's especially crucial when you're fighting off a bug. Your body tends to lose more water when you're sick through not-so-fun things like sweating, vomiting or diarrhea. Ingesting as many fluids as possible while ill will help your body purify itself, and stop whatever gunk you're hacking up from getting thicker.
- "Get some sleep!" -- At the end of the day, the only real cure for a cold or flu is plenty of rest. If you feel yourself coming down with something, head to bed a few hours early. You'll thank yourself when you wake up refreshed and cold-free!
What's your go-to remedy for cold and flu symptoms? Let us know in the comments!