Last week, I came down with what I now think is becoming my annual early-September cold (if two years in a row makes a trend).
I tucked myself in Monday night with the beginnings of a sore throat. After a restless night, I found my symptoms had escalated by Tuesday morning to a stuffy, runny nose, watery eyes and that telltale pressure headache unique to mucus-logged sinuses (sorry).
While it's not even technically autumn yet, this is a prime time for colds: When the humidity drops, cold viruses can survive better, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; the past couple of weeks have really felt like fall, not summer, and the sneezes sounding off all around our newsroom are proof enough for me.
I holed up in my bedroom for a couple of days, armed with tissues and tea. But even with nighttime meds, it took longer than I was expecting to get some much-needed relief from the sniffles.
There are over a billion colds in the U.S. every year, according to the National Institues of Health. Yes, a billion. So it's not surprising that we all think we know what to do to kick a cold. Everyone I spoke to over the past few days asked me if I was eating or drinking something different -- but what really works?
I chatted with Ilyse Schapiro, R.D., C.D.N., a registered dietitian in private practice in New York, about the best things to eat and drink when you have a cold -- and a few things to stay away from. Click through the slideshow below for her thoughts (and, um, mine). Then tell us in the comments what works for you.
Yes, Mom, I'm drinking plenty of fluids. While there <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/11/health/11really.html" target="_hplink">hasn't been any rigorous scientific research</a> into the legitimacy of this cold cure, staying hydrated is important. A little extra H20 can also help thin mucus, possibly easing some of that congestion, says Schapiro, and "help to flush everything out." Lovely. Plain water may be the best, but tea is another good option, she says. Warm liquid can soothe a sore throat and further ease congestion, and tea is also rich in infection-fighting antioxidants, she adds. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bradmontgomery/4186827426/" target="_hplink">brad montgomery</a></em>
One of my co-workers suggested not just any liquid, but juice in particular. I know orange juice has a healthy reputation for all that immunity-boosting vitamin C, but juice also gets a bad rap for containing a heck of a lot of calories and not a lot of bulk. Schapiro agrees. "You don't want beverages with added sugars," she says. "Extra sugar <a href="http://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/10-immune-system-busters-boosters" target="_hplink">hinders white blood cells</a> from fighting infection." If you're looking for that dose of C, go straight to the unprocessed source. Have an orange or a grapefruit, or squeeze some lemon into your tea -- the fruit has more fiber, so it'll be more filling, and you'll only get the natural sugars, not the added ones in juice, says Schapiro. You can even find vitamin C in some surprising places, like kale and red bell peppers, she adds, if you're not in the mood for citrus. However, before you run out for a week's worth of grapefruit, keep in mind that the jury is still out on vitamin C's real cold-busting benefit. A 2007 study that followed more than 11,000 people over several decades found that <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/07/070718002136.htm" target="_hplink">the average person isn't benefitted all that much by a daily dose of vitamin C</a>. Turns out, it's much more helpful to bodies under extreme physical stress, like marathon runners. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/tasselflower/5563590861/" target="_hplink">tasselflower</a></em>
By day three of my cold, I'd had soup for more meals than not. It's easy to sip on when you're not so hungry (a cold-induced phenomenon I am not usually plagued by), and it's comforting, but does it really help? While the warmth could break up some congestion, there does seem to be something about soup -- and chicken soup in particular -- that works to fight against infections. "It's anti-inflammatory," says Schapiro, a finding supported by a 2000 study that examined the <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11035691" target="_hplink">components of chicken soup</a> individually, as well as the contents of the bowl as a whole. The researchers found you might feel even better if you can convince someone to make it for you. If only. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/29233640@N07/3292261940/" target="_hplink">Robert Couse-Baker</a> </em>
I had to essentially force-feed myself the soup, but Schapiro says it's important to still get some protein "even when you don't feel like eating anything." Fish, chicken and turkey can help the organs that make your cold-destroying white blood cells, she says. Just stay away from fatty things, like a juicy steak or anything fried, since these foods are harder to digest and may suppress your immune system, she says. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/bensonk42/4947364945/" target="_hplink">bensonk42</a></em>
Another co-worker offered the following cure: Steep some fresh ginger in boiling water until the water turns yellow, then drink it like tea with some honey. At the time, I couldn't bring myself to walk down and then back up the four flights of stairs to my apartment just for some knobby ginger, but turns out she was onto something. The root has anti-inflammatory properties, says Schapiro, and you can get a "two-for-one" by cooking up a ginger-flavored chicken dish, she suggests. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/7155714264/" target="_hplink">stevendepolo</a></em>
"Eat garlic!" my boyfriend texted me, when I whined about my symptoms. "It's supposed to kill bacteria if you catch it early enough." My first reaction, as a health editor, was to wonder how he came by such wisdom, but turns out he's right (swoon). Regular garlic eaters seem to fight off colds, possibly because of the compound <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/20/health/20real.html " target="_hplink">allicin's ability to block infections</a>, the <em>New York Times</em> reported. "I would cook with it," says Schapiro. "Put it in the chicken soup, or with a chicken dish, or if you can tolerate it, cook vegetables like broccoli with it, for some extra antioxidants and vitamins."
I don't think anyone is going to throw a house party mid-cold, but maybe you're tempted to try a glass of wine to help you sleep. However, I have a hunch alcohol is what got me in trouble in the first place: a weekend of a little too intense exercise (a long run Saturday and a 90-minute soccer game on Sunday) washed down with a couple of beers instead of a couple of glasses (gallons?) of water. "There are properties of alcohol that decrease your immune system," says Schapiro, "it suppresses it, it doesn't let your body fight infection and it also dehydrates you." Guilty. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulaloe/148138443/" target="_hplink">paulaloe</a></em>
It's tempting to drown those sniffly sorrows in the bottom of an ice cream sundae, but rumor has it that dairy might make things worse. For every study that says you should avoid dairy products when you have a cold, there's one that says you needn't bother, says Schapiro. "Some people say to avoid it because it increases mucus, but others say it doesn't necessarily," she says. "I say try it, and if it doesn't aggravate you, then go for it," since dairy products can be good sources of protein and vitamin D, which can both help fight infections, she says. <em>Flickr photo by <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/savaughan/3210789112/" target="_hplink">SeRVe Photography</a></em>
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