12/11/2012 08:16 am ET

The Best Way To Fight A Cold

By Joe Donatelli for Shape.com

If you smell onions in someone’s socks over the next few weeks, do not be alarmed. That person is probably just fighting a cold.

Everyone seems to have a custom "miracle cure" for the common cold, and it seems the more creative the solution, the less bashful they are about sharing. A recent poll of Facebook friends revealed the following methods, all of which the practitioners stand by (in their onion-filled socks, in some cases):

  • Heaps of vitamin C
  • Chicken soup, preferably homemade by Mom
  • Natural foods, fresh colorful veggies, and supplements
  • Chopping and eating a raw yellow onion (with a little salad dressing for taste) followed by a warm bath or a long shower to open the pores
  • Oscillococcinum, which is a homeopathic alternative medicine
  • Thieves Essential Oil
  • Coating feet with Vicks Vapor Rub and wearing a pair of socks overnight
  • Socks filled with peeled onion layers
  • Cardio, a few sips of whiskey, and cold medicine
  • Outdoor activity, hydration, and rest
  • Sex

Is the mighty common cold so wimpy that it can be defeated by a rubber ducky, menthol, socks, and a few lit candles? The answer lies in an interesting piece of research by Dr. Bruce Barrett at the University of Wisconsin.

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In Barrett's study, cold sufferers were split into four groups—one group was given no pills, a second and third group were each given Echinacea or a placebo but were not told which pill they received, and a fourth group was given Echinacea and was told it was Echinacea. Each participant was asked to rate the effectiveness of the medicinal herb Echinacea.

The results: The illnesses of people who believed in Echinacea and received pills were considerably shorter and less severe -- regardless of whether or not the pills contained Echinacea.

What does that mean for you? "A positive outlook matters," Barrett says. If someone believes a cold remedy works, it just might. No one knows for sure why. Barrett says that the manner in which the brain stimulates healing mechanisms through positive expectations is not entirely understood. But this certainly helps explain why there is a seemingly endless list of pharmaceuticals, alternative treatments, and quirky homemade solutions for treating the common cold.

As a practicing family doctor, Barrett strongly encourages the use of non-pharmaceutical cold remedies. For the record, I swear by orange juice, bananas and vitamin C, which in the wide range of solutions turns out to be quite tame.

"I was being interviewed on 'The People's Pharmacy' (radio program) and a guy called in who melts skunk fat and gives a teaspoon of it to his kids when they start getting a cold," Barrett says. "He swore it stopped all of the colds in their tracks. That's worse than onion in the socks."

Have any skunk fat handy? No? What's your go-to cold cure? Tell us in the comments below!

Want more on the beating a cold? Check out these suggestions for the best and worst foods for a cold from Ilyse Schapiro, R.D., C.D.N.

Best And Worst Foods For A Cold