Sometimes it starts with “just feeling crummy”; other times it’s that faintly metallic taste in the back of your throat.
A couple sneezes later, and sure enough, you’re heading into a head cold.
According to Dr. Maryana Yevtukh, family medicine physician with Aurora Medical Center, the definition of the common cold is “an acute, self-limiting viral infection that affects the upper respiratory tract, involving the nose, sinuses, throat and vocal chords.”
“The common cold actually is not just one virus, but possibly a lot of different viruses,” she said.
Other symptoms usually include a runny nose, congestion, low-grade fever and cough.
“Colds tend to peak at one to three days and run their course anywhere between seven and 10 days,” Yevtukh said.
While there is no cure for the common cold, healing professionals agree there are ways to prevent catching a cold and ways to boost the immune system to help fight it.
Probiotics, echinacea and hand-washing were cited as some ways to steer off cold viruses.
“The most widely recognized herb for colds and flu is echinacea, known for its immune-enhancing effects as both a preventative and treatment for the common cold,” according to Linda Stengel, owner of Partners in Health, 3624 Sheridan Road, and a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine.
Yevtukh is a bit more conservative in her assessment of the herb. “There is no conclusive evidence in treating colds, but it is possibly effective in preventing them. There are so many different types and formulations and parts of plants used it is hard to figure out which is best.”
“Hand washing is the best advice I can give for preventing a cold,” Yevtukh said.
Also key to reducing the chance of getting ill is getting enough sleep and lowering stress. “Increased stress and poor sleep make people susceptible for disease,” Yevtukh said.
While there is no cure for the common cold, recipes for managing symptoms and dispelling germs faster abound, ranging from classic chicken soup to onions and honey.
Chicken noodle soup makes Yevtukh’s A-list. “This is the traditional go-to for its warmth from hot steam and broth. Also, the saltiness might help sooth throat irritation.”
Honey and elderberry syrup are sweet solutions with a bit of science around them as well. “There is decent evidence for honey as a cough suppressant,” Yevtukh said. “A study on children indicated that a teaspoon or two at night reduced nighttime coughing and improved sleep.”
Erin Merritt, pharmacist and owner of Modern Apothecary, 4924 Seventh Ave., notes that honey has been shown to have both antiviral and antibacterial properties. “It has been shown to be as effective as dextromethorphan in suppressing cough,” she said.
Elderberry syrup is a favorite go-to for Stengel. “One of the most delicious remedies for cold and flu season is elderberry syrup,” Stengel said. “It can be taken to help prevent a cold or to shorten the recovery time. It soothes the throat and helps to calm coughs.”
Elderberry has antiviral and immune modulating effects, says Merritt. “In a small study, when given within 48 hours of the onset of flu, elderberry extract has been shown to decrease symptoms by as much as 56 percent.”
Fresh ginger is often cited for its cold-fighting capabilities as well.
“It is anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, with weak antiviral properties,” says Merritt. “It also may improve fever and sleep during the illness.”
“This herb makes you sweat and relieves nausea,” reports Stengel. “It can be used by itself as a tea or added to garlic and honey, two additional superheroes,” she said.
Stengel also suggests cinnamon and sage to help combat cold symptoms.
Cinnamon can be used to warm chills that often accompany a cold and help ease upset stomachs, she said. “It is also said to warm those with cold hands and feet and even to regulate blood sugar levels.”
One of the primary goals is to break up congestion, say the experts.
For this, Yevtukh advises salt-water gargling, humidifiers and salt-water nasal rinses to wash out the sinuses.
Stengel’s favorite herbs for congested sinuses: fresh sage, thyme and other aromatics.
According to Merritt, thyme has antimicrobial, anti-fungal and antiviral activity. “When taken orally (i.e. tea or syrup), it helps with cough and helps break up mucous,” she said. “It also exhibits anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic and anti-allergenic activity.”
Several essential oils are also potentially beneficial, said Merritt. These include peppermint, pine and eucalyptus oil.
Stengel suggests creating herbal-infused steam to help with congestion. Her remedy recipe:
“Pour boiling water over a handful (of the herb of choice) in a large bowl, let it cool a bit, and cover your head and the bowl with a large towel and inhale the steam through your nose and mouth. Be careful not to burn your sinus membranes and come out from under the towel every few minutes.”
Stengel is also a fan of a less-common treatment for the common cold: onions and honey. “Slice an onion, place it in a saucepan and cover the onion with raw honey. Cook the mixture on a very low temperature for about 10 minutes or until the onions are soft, then eat. Delicious!”
The healing effects of onions, Stengel says, are “drawing, anti-infective, anti-inflammatory and cough relieving.”
Some people are fans of zinc to enhance recovery from a cold, others not so much.
Says Yevtukh, “Zinc is thought to work to stop a virus from multiplying, thereby decreasing the cold’s severity and duration.” However, she adds the caveat that zinc should never be used inside the nose, as this use can be associated with anosmia, or the loss of smell, which is irreversible.
Even if a cold remedy seems completely natural and benign, Merritt cautions that it is important to consult with a doctor, medical provider or pharmacist before taking herbs or natural supplements to combat that cold.
“Natural and herbal remedies can interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications,” she said.