Step Aside, Chicken Soup: Eight Cold Elixirs

Eight alternative elixirs for the common cold.

ByABC News
September 19, 2008, 11:06 AM

Oct. 14, 2008 — -- No matter where you live or what language you speak, the symptoms of a cold are understood the world over -- no translation required: Your throat feels sore; your nose runs; you might cough or sneeze; and your body aches.

It's time to crawl under the covers and get the extra rest you need.

But a cold virus will need some coaxing to hit the road. Colds rarely make a quick exit and usually take about a week to run their course.

That's where the time-honored tradition of folk medicine comes into play.

Faced with a cold and a lack of modern medicine, our ancestors turned to nature for its treatments. And throughout the world, parts of plants -- the roots, stems, leaves, fruits and flowers -- are used to ease a cold and its symptoms.

In the United States, we've been spooning up chicken soup when we get sick for generations. The comforting golden broth appears to have some therapeutic benefits, both from its ingredients and its warmth.

"The common cold is a good example of an illness we don't have a good cure for and there are good common-sense remedies for it," said Dr. Marjorie Mau, chair of the Department of Native Hawaiian Health at the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii.

As the daughter of a Chinese father and Hawaiian Chinese mother, Mau fondly recalled her mother's spin on chicken soup, which she loves to this day. It combines chicken in a clear broth, ginger root ... and a little bit of whiskey.

Now a physician, she can explain why a bowl of this homemade treatment made her feel better. "It was warm and likely the alcohol helped to break my fever and make me sleepy. The liquid gave me some added hydration. And the chicken was tender and easy to digest. It's exactly what Western medicine says to do for a cold."

Possibly, it's the memories of and belief in the healing potential of these folk remedies that make them so powerful.

That's why searched for the popular foods, drinks or remedies from other countries and cultures. Consider these eight treatments based on folk medicine with an international flair.

Visit the OnCall+ Cold & Flu Center

If we've left out your heritage, post your own favorite ways to get over a cold in the comments section after reading this article.

Bitterroot goes by many other names including singer's root (the remedy is used for a hoarse voice), said Maresca, now a family medicine physician and director of the Native American Center for Excellence at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. "You can even find it sold at health food stores as calamus root or sweet flag."

You take a little chunk of bitterroot or bite off a piece, which tastes quite bitter, as its name suggests. The root is hard, and as it softens up, it becomes spongy so you can suck on it for hours, explained Maresca, who typically carries a small piece of it with her when she travels in case she feels a cold coming on.

Bitterroot might work to soothe an inflamed throat or quiet a cough by increasing the production of saliva. And because it also helps calm the stomach, it's sometimes considered "Indian Tums."

American Indians might also turn to teas to ease their cold symptoms. One traditional brew that Maresca likes to steep is a combination of the herb peppermint and yarrow. A medicinal plant, yarrow is thought to increase circulation and promote sweating to help bring down a fever. She describes the tea as pungent with a distinctive, but pleasant smell.

Besides teas, steaming is another popular cold reliever in the American Indian tradition. Boiling water is placed into a bowl, leaves or needles from a fragrant tree (such as juniper or cedar) are added, then you create a tent over your head with a cloth or towel. Breathing in the scented steam helps to unblock sinuses, break up nasal congestion and promote mucus flow.

Its nickname is stinkweed, referring to its distinct smell. The reason it's called stinkweed, she explained, is because when you go looking for the plant, you know you've found it when you can pinch the leaf with your fingers, touch them to your nose and it smells exactly like menthol.

The best wormwood is found in the coastal areas of Alaska, where the mixture of the salt air and the region's soil make the plant a stronger medication, said Miller, who is affiliated with the Southcentral Foundation's Traditional Healing Program in Anchorage, Alaska, which offers both traditional healing practices along with Western medicine to Alaska natives.

The plant can either be used "green," meaning freshly picked, or dried. It's placed in a pot and boiled for 20 minutes. You remove it from the heat and allow the avocado green liquid to steep. The tea can be served hot or cold.

At the onset of cold symptoms, you might drink a cup of tea, a couple of times a day. But, Miller warned, you need to have food with the beverage because it's a strong, potent medicine that should be used very cautiously.

Besides using wormwood as a tea, you can also gargle with the liquid. Or you can put it in a nasal spray bottle to clear the sinuses and allow the nasal passageways to drain, said Miller.

According to "Native Hawaiian Medicine," a textbook translated by Malcolm Chun, the bark of the root is good medicine for a sore throat, tonsillitis and chest pain when breathing.

The bitter root from the inner bark might be chewed to release the juice inside the plant. Swallowing this juice as it mixes with the saliva in your mouth could help soothe a sore throat.

The root bark can also be boiled into a reddish-colored tea that's drunk for sore throats as well as for bronchial and bacterial infections.

Dane Silva is a native Hawaiian healer on the Big Island. He described some of the healing methods he might use for a cold: When someone has a cold, the family talks with each other, and we call this concept "ohana." A tradition of the ohana when caring for someone with a respiratory infection may include giving indigenous herbal medicines and massage, accompanied by prayers for spiritual intercession, guidance and protection.

"An herbal tea of uhaloa may be recommended to reduce the intensity of the immune response to the infection. Other herbal beverages made with turmeric [also known as 'olena'] may reduce the inflammatory symptoms," Silva said.

A hot or warmed stone may be placed on the body to regress a cold's symptoms.

A dilute solution of salt water with lemon juice is used as a gargle to cleanse the mucus in the respiratory system. Daily baths in salt water may be advised.

"Sun, salt and water are essential components of traditional Hawaiian medicine," said Silva.

And when you have a cold, the idea of jetting off to a place with sunshine, warm weather, and salt water might just what you'd want the doctor to order.

Purple black in color and an excellent source of vitamin C, blackcurrants were used in the United Kingdom as a food source of vitamin C during World War II, when oranges were hard to come by. In fact, blackcurrants have three to four times the vitamin C content as an orange and are valued for their medicinal benefits. Long a trusted remedy for sore throat, the small berries were called quinsy for a form of tonsillitis they're thought to treat.

Blackcurrants come from trees found mostly in Northern and Central Europe and Asia, which is one reason they remain popular in Europe today. The trees were once widely found in the United States, but when the shrub was found to host and spread a disease that threatened the timber industry, they were banned in the early 1900s. By the mid-1960s the federal ban was lifted in favor of allowing states to make their own growing decisions.

Both the fruit and its juice have a sweet and tart taste. The juice can be homemade or sold commercially as a concentrate in the supermarket, explained Siukosaari. If using the concentrate, you add hot water to it and begin to drink the warm juice three to four times a day when your cold symptoms start to act up.

This tried-and-true remedy has been passed down through the generations rather than being the treatment of choice from physicians, she pointed out.

As would be expected, the hot beverage is made by combining boiling water, juice from a lemon and honey to taste.

It could be manuka honey, a type that's native to New Zealand and thought to have additional germ-killing and healing properties, but it's not the only option, said Naylor. "Since this remedy gets passed down from families, there's no one correct way of making it."

The residents of this island country might drink it several times a day to relieve cold symptoms.

The lemon adds a bit of immune-enhancing vitamin C and may even help cut down the production of mucus. Besides adding sweetness, honey can coat an irritated throat and ease its raw and inflamed mucous membranes, which can release secretions or become dry. (It's no surprise that lemon-honey is a popular flavor of throat lozenges.)

Sipped slowly and frequently, this hot mixture can be balm to your throat to temporarily ease its pain. And its healing ingredients and warmth might also help break up congestion.

It's made by combining one or two teaspoons of honey and lemon juice with or without a few drops of eucalyptus oil. About one cup of ginger ale is added to this mixture, which is then heated, and sipped slowly like a tea.

It's both the healing powers of the ingredients and the soothing warmth of this golden-colored beverage that has made this folk remedy endure from generation to generation in South Africa. The drink is often used by adults along with some aspirin.

Ginger ale is a home remedy frequently used to ease an upset stomach, which may accompany a cold. Lemon might also tame mucus production and honey could relieve a sore throat. Eucalyptus is a fragrant medicinal oil with a strong menthol-like smell, and its vapors are thought to help reduce nasal congestion and coughing.

Some people in South Africa might also use a bitter medicinal herb called perdepis, which loosely translated means horse urine, a reference to the strong smell of its leaves. The herb, whose botanical name is Clausena anisata and may be called Horsewood, is used as a remedy for cold and flu.

Perdepis root is boiled in water and then strained. A couple of cups of the tea are drunk about twice a day, with or without the ginger ale combination previously described.

Clare Sammells, an anthropology instructor at the University of Chicago, described a local remedy for sore throat made by cutting a hole in the center of a turnip and filling it with sugar. The moisture from the turnip is combined with the sugar into a thick syrup that is drunk.

"It's very viscous and sweet," Sammells said. "It coats your throat."

Though it may not last long, the turnip syrup can form a thin layer over the mucous membrane of the throat, soothing the area, said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of the Department of Preventative Medicine at Vanderbilt Medical School. The protective layer can give the body a chance to heal itself.

"It's a reasonable notion, and just for a few minutes," Schaffner said. "Maybe not to help cure [sore throat] but to give symptomatic relief."

Turnips are high in vitamin C, an important nutrient that helps boost the immune system, which may leech into the syrup. And sugar has antiseptic properties, acting as a germicide to destroy microbes and reduce the possibility of infection.

Cold & Flu season is here! Visit the OnCall+ Cold & Flu Center to get all your questions answered about these nasty viruses.

Radha Chitale contributed to this report.

Uhaloa Photo Courtesy: Gerald D. Carr, Oregon State University