Science can do a lot these days, but curing the common cold is not yet one of its accomplishments. That doesn't stop Americans, however, from shelling out several billion dollars annually to try to relieve runny noses, sneezes and coughs.
There's growing concern that these cold products are not only ineffective, but sometimes dangerous, especially for the young: About 7,000 children wind up in emergency rooms yearly after taking products for colds, according to a new report published in the journal Pediatrics. In January, the Food and Drug Administration urged parents not to give these products to children under age 2. The FDA is considering whether to expand that restriction.
Cold experts note that decongestant sprays work for nasal congestion if they are limited to two days or less of use. Nonprescription analgesics can help control fever, headache and joint pain. But none of that helped my husband and me when we were recently sidelined with colds and gut-wrenching coughs.
Hot, steamy showers provided temporary relief. But who can spend the day under running water? Same goes for standing over a pot of steam. Even our doctor agreed that there wasn't much to offer besides rest.
So what remedies did our ancestors use before the advent of dextromethorphan, an antitussive found in many over-the-counter cough medicines? Constance Carter at the Library of Congress kindly provided a dozen sources for concoctions used by Native Americans, herbalists and others. Some, such as a few drops of skunk oil on the chest, turpentine and mustard plasters, weren't remotely appealing.
In 1904, Emily Holt, author of the "Complete Housekeeper," recommended Indian turnip root to halt cold-related coughs. Holt, who called the root "hotter than fire, but healing," advised eating it for "urgent" cases or adding it to an elixir of maple syrup and brandy.
That sounds similar to a remedy my father sometimes whipped up: bourbon, honey and a little lemon. (Never give alcohol to children and don't give honey to children 2 or younger because of botulism concerns.)
My father's remedy still works temporarily. So does the hot toddy my husband made with tea, freshly squeezed orange and lemon juice, honey and a small amount of bourbon.
Honey and chicken soup
Honey, it seems, has some special properties that coat the throat. A Penn State study published last year found it superior to both dextromethorphan and no treatment in controlling coughs in children.
Next, I shelled out $14 for a kosher chicken to make soup with roasted baby carrots and tomatoes, wild rice and garlic. Carrots are rich in beta carotene, which is converted by the body into vitamin A. Tomatoes are filled with vitamin C, good for strengthening the body's immune system. 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 ridiculous, even to my desperate self.
Paul Anderson, a naturopathic physician at Bastyr University, a school of alternative medicine in Seattle, had some other options, starting with cherry bark extract, an antitussive that can be found in many health food stores. Traditional Medicinals Organic Throat Coat contains it in a caffeine-free tea bag. (It costs about $5 for a box of 15 bags.) As its name implies, it's a bit medicinal tasting, but did seem to help a little more than regular tea.
Mint "can also have a calming effect" on the irritated nerves that help produce the cough reflex, Anderson said. This popular herb helps relax respiratory muscles that can lead to spasmodic cough reflex. Both marshmallow root ($27 per pound) and mullen -- also called mullein (about $5 per 4-ounce box) -- have similar action. Buy them as dried herbs and steep them in stainless steel balls for tea.
Then there's black elderberry. Find it in Sambucol lozenges (about $12 per bottle of 30) or syrups in health food stores and pharmacies. It's also available in extract (about $12 per ounce) that can be added to hot or cold liquids. There's some evidence to suggest 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.
You can subscribe to the free Lean Plate Club e-mail newsletter at www.leanplateclub.com. Sally Squires is a writer for the Washington Post.