Don’t let that pesky cold get the best of you. From healthy comfort food to spicy chiles, these tried-and-true food remedies may help manage your symptoms.
Credit: Photo: Hector Manuel Sanchez

When you catch a cold, standard over-the-counter remedies can relieve a runny nose or a persistent headache—but the effects are only temporary. There’s yet to be a miracle medicine that can prevent a cold entirely or shorten its duration.

Antibiotics won’t help either. While they can treat bacterial infections, they’re ineffective―even detrimental―in treating the flu or cold virus (of which there are more than 200 strands). Antibiotics eliminate all bacteria, yes, but they also wipe out the “good” bacteria. This can actually interfere with your body's efforts to battle a virus.

There may not be an exact cure for the common cold, but this doesn’t mean to you have be miserable. As it turns out, the fastest and easiest relief may actually come from what you’re eating. Time-honored, food-based folk remedies such as chicken soup, raw garlic, and chile peppers may offer sound nutritional strategies for battling a cold. How?

"Diet keeps our internal mechanisms at peak production. And when you're seeking relief from cold symptoms, many traditional food remedies can be effective," says Samuel D. Caughron, M.D., a family practitioner specializing in clinical preventive medicine at the Charlottesville Wellness Center in Virginia. "Many of these remedies have given symptomatic relief for centuries; some now even have science behind them."

Think about it. Few foods top the soul-soothing qualities of chicken soup. Or take fiery chile peppers, which have long been associated with easing sinus problems. Below, we dig into the history behind five long-standing food remedies—and why they may actually help you beat a stuffy nose or persistent headache. 

1. Chicken Soup

Credit: Photo: Hector Manuel Sanchez

Steamy and comforting, chicken soup boasts a long history as a doctor-approved remedy. In a.d. 60, Pedacius Dioscorides, physician during the Roman emperor Nero, recommended chicken soup for respiratory illness. A 12th-century rabbi and physician named Moses Maimonides also prescribed chicken soup when Sultan Saladin, the Muslim military leader he served, complained of a cold.

The late 1970s brought the first modern scientific evidence touting chicken soup's cold-fighting properties. A 1978 study in the medical journal Chest reported that chicken soup is the most effective hot liquid for clearing mucus from the nose. The hot soup nourishes, hydrates, and steams open clogged nasal passages. The faster mucus flows, the better: These nasal secretions help expel viruses.

According to a study published in the American College Of Chest Physicians, chicken soup contains anti-inflammatory properties that can also ease congestion. In his research, Stephen Rennard, M.D., a pulmonary specialist and professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska, focused on how neutrophils, white blood cells that gather to fight infection, respond in the presence of chicken soup. Neutrophils usually rush to airways to destroy an invading virus, but they also trigger inflammatory response symptoms, like coughing, sneezing, and nasal congestion.

The results: Rennard found that his wife's homemade chicken soup (and most store-bought brands) slowed this cell migration and reduced congestion, thereby helping eliminate one of the symptoms, if not the source.

Still, Rennard has not yet identified the beneficial compounds causing this neutrophil response. "Additional ingredients in the soup besides the chicken may have been helpful," he says. "Vegetables, for instance, have lots of potentially medicinally active compounds, like vitamins and antioxidants." And so his research continues, but the basic conclusion remains: Chicken soup does indeed help. If you’re feeling under the weather, our Immunity-Boosting Chicken Soup recipe is sure to warm you all the way through.

2. Vitamin C

Credit: Photo: Brian Woodcock

A natural antihistamine, vitamin C can also relieve cold symptoms such as watery eyes as well as nasal and chest congestion. It’s also a powerful antioxidant that can help prevent further cell damage when viruses or bacteria attack the immune system. Specifically, vitamin C stimulates the release of interferon, a protein substance that increases resistance to viruses, and strengthens the movement of microbe-killing white blood cells called phagocytes.

Vitamin C's popularity as a cold remedy began in 1970, when two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, Ph.D., published Vitamin C and the Common Cold and claimed that high doses could protect against this scourge. Since then, mounting scientific evidence indicates that although vitamin C does not prevent colds, taking supplements (with high doses of 1,000 milligrams or more) at the earliest onset of an infection can halt its progression or lessen symptoms.

Longtime vitamin C researcher Harri Hemilä, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Helsinki in Finland, has reviewed 21 studies conducted during the past 30 years that used 1,000 milligrams or more of vitamin C to treat colds. He found that higher amounts of vitamin C (taken in divided doses throughout the day) produced the best results. Study subjects given 1,000 milligrams daily showed a 19 percent decrease in severity of cold symptoms. While not as potent as supplements, citrus fruits, kale, butternut squash, bell peppers, and kiwis pack a healthy punch of vitamin C in every serving. If you’re looking for a vitamin C boost, our Kale, Jicama, and Orange Salad is the perfect nutrient-packed salad.

3. Chile Peppers

When chile-laced foods hit the mouth, throat, and stomach, they stimulate the nerve receptors of secretion-producing glands, triggering a release of watery fluids that can make the eyes tear and the nose run.

"It's a self-cleansing process that helps eliminate the virus by breaking up congestion, flushing out sinuses, and washing away irritants," says Irwin Ziment, M.D., professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Medicine.

For centuries, vitamin-packed chile peppers have been valued as a mucokinetic (or mucus-moving) agent. The Aztecs ate large amounts of chiles for this purpose, and the Mayans swallowed a pungent dose of crushed chile peppers, honey, and tobacco leaf to cure sore throats.

For especially tenacious colds, Ziment recommends gargling with a pepper solution-Tabasco Sauce stirred into a glass of warm water-up to four times daily. The degree of optimum potency and frequency of gargling depends on the bug's severity and your own pepper tolerance (a few drops of Tabasco may suffice for novices, whereas hot pepper aficionados may need 20 or more drops for the desired decongestant effect).

4. Hot Toddy

Credit: Photo: Rachel Johnson

To get a good night's sleep and to clear a stuffed-up nose, try an old English remedy—the hot toddy (try this tasty Buckwheat-Honey Hot Toddy). This hot water- or tea-based tonic flavored with liquor (typically whiskey or brandy), lemon juice, and honey may ease cold symptoms, says Ara DerMarderosian, Ph.D., professor of pharmacognosy (the study of natural products in medicine) and medicinal chemistry at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

"Alcohol has some antimicrobial properties, thins the mucus, and has sedative qualities," says DerMarderosian. "Lemon provides vitamin C and citric acid, which loosens phlegm. And honey coats and soothes the mucus membranes."

But avoid tippling too much, especially when the cold is at its peak. A moderate amount of alcohol in a toddy is considered relatively safe. Too much can interfere with your sleep, cause dehydration, and hinder immune function, prolonging your cold.

5. Garlic

Physicians from Hippocrates to Albert Schweitzer have used garlic to treat a number of health conditions ranging from cholera to heart disease. Garlic is also a powerful cold fighter, claims Benjamin Lau, M.D., Ph.D., professor of microbiology, immunology, and surgery at Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California. In his book Garlic and You, he writes, "Over the past decade, many physicians and patients have reported that they have fewer colds and experience a quicker recovery from viral infections as a result of garlic supplementation."

Crushing, slicing, or mincing garlic releases a substance known as allicin, which rapidly oxidizes and forms more than 100 biologically active, infection-fighting sulfur compounds. Though researchers once attributed the medicinal punch of garlic solely to allicin, research now points to other therapeutic substances. A 1999 laboratory-based study published in the International Journal of Immunopharmacology suggests that another garlic derivative, alliin, also boosts immunity by improving the production of certain white blood cells.

"Raw garlic has a strong antimicrobial effect," says Elson Haas, M.D., director of the Preventive Medical Center in San Rafael, California. His personal cold-fighting strategy involves chewing thoroughly and then swallowing several cloves of raw garlic every hour or two when he suspects that a cold is coming. "I do this just the first day to prevent the virus from spreading," he says. To temper the taste, he dips the cloves into honey.

A more conservative dosage is one to three raw cloves a day, which most people can tolerate. Ideally, garlic should be taken with a meal to prevent potential stomach upset. Stir two or three crushed cloves into a bowl of hot soup. "You'll still get the benefits of fresh garlic without the strong taste," Haas says.

And while upping your garlic intake certainly won’t hurt you, experts counsel that food-based cold-care strategies should not be used in lieu of proper medical attention. If you’re feeling sick, make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids, as extra amounts of water, fruit juice, tea, and carbonated drinks ease symptoms. But the old-fashioned standbys continue to prevail. Their effectiveness in fighting the common cold makes going on the nutritional defensive a comforting—and tasty—prescription.