With the average adult coming down with between one and six colds a year, if there's one thing the common cold is, it's, well, common. Add in the possibility of contracting the flu—up to 20 percent of adults do each year—and the probability is high that you'll find yourself under the weather sometime this season. Even so, as anyone who's ever been laid up with a box of tissues knows, conventional cold and flu treatments leave much to be desired. We consulted with health experts to find out what medication-free steps you can take to beat these ubiquitous illnesses.
No, not the kind favored by Harold and Kumar. White button mushrooms (90 percent of the 'shrooms eaten in the United States) have powerful immunity-boosting effects, according to two studies from the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. These fabulous fungi increase the production of antiviral proteins that can destroy or deactivate the foreign invaders that make you sick.
Your Rx: Whether you eat them raw or cooked, mushrooms should have the same beneficial effects, says immunology researcher Dayong Wu, Ph.D. Include both in your meals while you are in recovery mode. Toss sliced raw mushrooms into a salad, sauté some in olive oil and add them to an omelet or pasta sauce, or order as a pizza topping for a low-calorie dose of vitamins, minerals, and powerful virus-fighting benefits.
Steam acts as a natural decongestant, opening up nasal passages without causing any troublesome side effects. "A hot shower will liquefy and loosen mucus," says Neil Schachter, M.D., author of The Good Doctor's Guide to Colds and Flu.
Your Rx: Turn up the heat and fog up the bathroom mirror before you lower the water to a comfortable shower-taking temperature. This way, the room will be full of steam you'll inhale while you wash up. For added relief, try some aromatherapy. Infuse your shower with a few drops of eucalyptus oil, which has antimicrobial effects when inhaled. Or try Kiss My Face Cold & Flu, a soothing and aromatic shower gel.
And FYI: Despite the siren call of a mist-filled room, it's best to avoid your gym's steam room while you're sick. "Damp public places are loaded with germs like mold spores and bacteria," says Schachter.
An Ohm Remedy
When you're under the weather, the Sanskrit word ohm, which is chanted to mark the beginning and end of a yoga practice, can do more than calm your nerves. It can also help you breathe easier. "The physical vibration loosens phlegm and can help open up the ostia, the pathways from which the sinuses drain," says Timothy McCall, M.D., author of Yoga As Medicine. Another breathing exercise known as bhramari pranayama (or buzzing bee breath—it generates a bzzz sound) also resonates in your sinuses, with similar positive effects.
Your Rx: If you're chanting ohm, extend the mmm sound longer than usual to increase resonance. Repeat either the ohm or bzzz sound for one to two minutes, and repeat as often as needed for it to feel good, says McCall. It's hard to OD on this, he says. So if you're feeling a benefit, continue doing it.
Try Grandma's Penicillin
Chicken soup was known to soothe colds and the flu as far back as the 12th century, and now its healing reputation is firmly backed by science. "Several studies have shown that chicken soup inhibits the production of inflammatory compounds that are released in a viral infection," says Schachter. Vegetable-based soups such as minestrone also seem to reduce inflammation, but their effects are not quite as strong as chicken soup's.
Your Rx: Help yourself to a big bowlful and repeat if needed. Homemade is your best bet, but if Grandma has gone South for the winter, no worries! Canned chicken soup also shows similar virus-busting benefits, according to Schachter.
"Blowing your nose too hard will drive mucus back into the sinuses," says Schachter. When you're sick, this pressure could send bacteria or viruses soaring deep into your sinus cavities, potentially leading to more serious infection, according to a study from the University of Virginia that examined CT scans of adults sneezing, coughing, and blowing their noses.
Your Rx: Blow gently, one nostril at a time. For another sinus-clearing technique that won't wake the neighbors, consider using a saline rinse or neti pot (www.neilmed.com) in the morning and at bedtime to wash away excess mucus and other residual nastiness.
Just a Spoonful of Honey
Drizzling honey into your tea when you're feeling ill may do more than soothe a sore throat. When compared with the main ingredient in cough suppressants, the sweet stuff was more effective at decreasing cough frequency and severity in a study of children up to age 18 from Penn State College of Medicine. The researchers attribute these results to honey's soothing properties as well as its antimicrobial and antioxidant effects. (Note: Never give honey to a child who is under 1 year old.)
Your Rx: For relief, try two tablespoons of honey before bed, the amount given to the 18-year-olds in the study. While buckwheat honey was the type used in the study, those with allergies or asthma should avoid it due to its high level of pollen. Stick with the plain supermarket brand instead.
Make gravity work in your favor to help ease nasal pressure. "Raising your head when congested helps to drain sinus passages," says Schachter. Using an additional pillow or two to lift your upper body can keep things moving in the right direction.
Your Rx: Prop yourself up before bed by adding at least one extra pillow to your normal setup. "Changing head position frequently also relieves congestion," adds Schachter. While you can't knowingly shift your head once you've fallen asleep, try to move around when you're just resting in bed to keep the congestion from settling in one place and backing up.