"I think I’m getting sick… ” might be the most dreaded five words in the English language come winter. Even if you’ve gotten your flu shot, you’re still not immune from one to two good bouts of snoughing (runny nose + coughing) and all the other nasty cold symptoms that tend to hang around this time of year.
If your usual plan of defense is to hide in your warm bed and reach for the bottle of cough medicine to KTFO, you might want to take a new approach this year—actually, an old approach.
Imagine for a minute that your grandparents were taking care of you: How would they treat your symptoms? Grams would probably make you chicken soup, and Gramps would be all about the whiskey, right? And don’t forget the Vapo Rub.
Back in the day, pouring a tipple of whiskey was standard procedure. But do these old-fashioned remedies have any merit today? Here’s the truth.
Should You Throw Back a Hot Toddy?
You wouldn’t knock knocking back a few in the name of health, right? In the 19th and 20th centuries, doctors regularly prescribed brandy and whiskey for medicinal purposes, including reducing a fever, treating pneumonia, and as a sedative to eliminate pain, discomfort, and to help patients sleep.
Eventually, these prescriptions went out of style as modern medicine took shape. But you might have still heard about your grandfather taking a few swigs when he was feeling under the weather.
A hot toddy, which is made with hot water, whiskey, honey, and lemon juice, is a medicinal tea of sorts. And most of those ingredients actually will make you feel better, says Lisa Doggett, M.D., a board-certified family physician in Austin, Texas. “Warm liquids can be soothing to the throat,” she says. “And there's actually some evidence supporting the use of honey to reduce a cough and improve sleep in kids older than 12 months old. It may be beneficial for adults as well.”
Doggett says her personal go-to remedy for cold symptoms is hot herbal tea with lemon and honey. As for the whiskey, she’d leave it out. “Alcohol might interact with any medications taken for the cold symptoms or for another health condition,” she says.
If you aren’t on any other meds, John Cheng, M.D., a doctor of family medicine in Orange County, California, says a hot toddy may be what you need to relax when you’re ill. “The heat will dilate the nasal passages, which allows for mucus to flow better, the alcohol in the drink makes you feel relaxed, and it has soporific (sleep-inducing) benefits that are needed when you are ill."
But PSA: Make sure you only drink in moderation and take your toddy with plenty of water because alcohol can be dehydrating, all.
What About Chicken Noodle Soup?
Whether you were fed the kind with noodles or matzo balls, your Bubbie was so right about this one. Doctors seem to universally agree that chicken soup can do wonders for cold and cough symptoms. So go ahead and down it by the spoonful.
While studies that claim CNS can actually cure you are limited, there are plenty of reasons to believe that the ingredients in the soup, its warm nature, and the smell alone can help you feel better.
“Chicken soup is a must when you have the flu,” says Edmund Nahm, M.D., an ear, nose, and throat specialist in New York City. “It hydrates the body, soothes the throat, and tastes great.”
Of the limited studies that have been done on chicken soup, researchers have found it to have anti-inflammatory properties for the upper-respiratory tract, plus it helps open up stuffy nasal passages. It may even inhibit pro-inflammatory conditions associated with the early stages of a viral infection and help prevent the dreaded common cold.
Only one question remains: Does Uber Eats deliver chicken noodle?
... and Is It Worth Smelling Like Vicks VapoRub?
Your mom probably rubbed good ol’ Vicks on your chest or feet when you were little and coughing. And if you thought it didn’t do much besides stink up the room—you weren’t alone.
For years, doctors had zero evidence that camphor (a cough suppressant that is one of the main ingredients in Vicks) and menthol (thus the smell) did anything. Then a 2010 study came out and changed everyone’s minds. Compared to petroleum jelly and doing nothing for a cough in kids, Vicks outscored everyone. Researchers found it to help with cold and cough congestion plus sleep quality.
“Many of the symptoms of colds and flu are related to congestion and cough, symptoms that can be particularly bothersome at night and interfere with sleep,” says Amesh Adalja, M.D., a board-certified infectious disease physician in Pittsburgh. “There is some data that shows that application of Vicks VapoRub (or an equivalent ointment containing menthol, camphor, and eucalyptus oil) can diminish a nighttime cough and allow the sick person to sleep better through the night.”
Just stick with the rub on your chest, back of the neck, and feet. Putting it near your eyes or nose could cause you to inhale toxins that may be dangerous.
The Bottom Line
While old-fashioned remedies won’t cure you, they probably won’t hurt, either. “Unfortunately, we don't have good clinical evidence to support most of the old-fashioned treatments for colds and coughs,” Doggett says. “On the other hand, we don't have solid evidence for most over-the-counter cough and cold medicines lining shelves of pharmacies everywhere, either. So if someone has a cough and cold remedy that's tried and true, usually it's fine to use it.”
Just be sure to see your doctor if your symptoms get worse or don’t improve after 10 days—it may be a sign of a more serious condition.