Tis the season for sniffles and sneezes. Sore throats, congestion, coughs, and snot in yellow and green. We all have so much on our to-do list….who has time for a cold? Despite our best intentions, we usually get on average two colds per year.
When many of us feel the onset of a cold, we often turn to the medications that are marketed to us as the cure. But you did know, some of these medications can actually make you worse? Many of the decongestants and medications touted to help you clear mucous, can actually cause you to make more mucous. I can’t count the number of times that I have heard, “I have been taking Mucinex for two weeks and I feel worse!”
When it comes to your cough, many people reach for over the counter cough medications that promise to alleviate the urge to cough and “make you rest better.” The antihistamine component might knock you out at night, but over-the-counter cough medications actually are about as effective as water when it comes to alleviating any cold symptoms. In fact, a study found that honey was more effective than a common cough medication dextromethophan. Cohen, 2012
What’s even worse is that many miserable people with colds go to their physician in search of relief, receiving little in the way of effective treatment. According to WebMD, Americans spend $1.1 billion dollars on antibiotics, which are useless. The article goes on to say that the cost of the common cold is $40 billion dollars per year, in over-the-counter medications, doctor visits, and lost work days.
Most of the time we physicians glare at our patients furiously as they demand an antibiotic because they insist they need to get better before….Christmas, their anniversary, they get fired because they can’t speak, they have a date, they have to work on Monday, etc., or they just don’t have time to rest adequately. Many of these people leave with a prescription for a Z-pack, just so we can get out of the room and on with our day.
Unnecessary antibiotics aren’t just bad for society because they increase the risk of resistant bacteria, they are bad for you too. Antibiotics kill off the bacteria in our bowel that we are finding more and more have A LOT to do with the rest of our health. Some studies have shown that these bacteria can affect our mental health and even our weight. That’s right….too many Z-packs might just make you fat, or depressed. Ok, that might be a stretch but I wouldn’t give them to my own family.
There are occasions when the cold virus can turn into a sinus infection and antibiotics are warranted. This usually results in fever, sinus pressure, and an illness lasting longer than 10 days.
Sometimes physicians (myself included), might do something even worse if they don’t want to prescribe an antibiotic, and they want the patient to get off of their case….they give them a steroid. Talk about a nuclear bomb, these medications will certainly make you feel better for awhile. You will have enough energy to clean the entire house, not notice your cold, cook dinner, and even go our with your friends. You will have so much energy you won’t even go to sleep that night! You also might get hungry enough to eat the entire fridge, something that none of us need this time of year.
While these medications might get you out of your doctor’s hair for awhile so he or she can move onto the next patient, they won’t actually do anything for your cold. I think there are some herbs that might help you feel better without the side effects.
Here are a few of my favorite treatments for the cold virus:
This herb has been used in many different cultures to both treat and prevent upper respiratory infections. It must be taken within 48 hours of the onset of the sniffles, and you can start to have relief in about 2 days. It is also shown to be helpful in coughs, and it can be used continuously to prevent you from getting a cold in the first place. I don’t know of any over the counter medication, or prescription drug that can get you feeling better in two days, in fact quite the opposite.
This herb is also known as Siberian Ginseng. It is an adaptogen, which means that it helps you deal with chronic stresses which could be what brought on your sickness in the first place. It positions the body to better deal with stress and boosts your immunity. It is best used in conjunction with Andrographis.
Glycyrrhiza glabra, a root, has been used for centuries as an anti-spasmodic (think cough), as well as a soothing agent for mucous membranes. It also has an action in the body that mimics the effects of steroids, owing to its anti-inflammatory properties. Unlike Prednisone, it probably won’t have the extreme side effect of making you lose your sleep, which is important while recovering from an illness. Licorice also has many anti-viral properties, inhibiting replication of some of the viruses that can cause colds. It is especially helpful in the form of lozenges for sore throat.
This relative of the geranium flower was used to treat Tuberculosis before we could treat it with multiple antibiotics. It also has some effectiveness against the bacteria that commonly cause sinus infections and ear infections. This is perhaps the most common herb that I have found while perusing the selection at the grocery store and other more common retailers.
Certain mushrooms, mainly Shiitake, Maitake, Reishi, and Lion’s Mane can induce anti-viral cells in your immune system to jump into action. They have even been shown to nudge the body into destroying cancer cells. I would recommend medicinal mushrooms daily for those who get frequent upper respiratory infections.
Eucalyptus Essential Oil can be used as an inhalant to treat congestion, cough, and ear pain. A few drops can be used in a bowl of boiling water, and then the vapor can be inhaled. This is found to be more effective than over the counter Mucinex and can unblock clogged ears as well. It should never be ingested as it can be toxic.
If you have the sniffles and sneezes and don’t have time for a cold, there are many medicinal plants that will help you feel better much faster than a trip to the doctor and some antibiotics. Your mother really did know better than the manufacturer of Mucinex when she made you tea with honey.
None of these statements were intended to diagnose or treat a disease. Please see an Integrative Medicine practitioner for personalized advice on treatment.
Dr. Erin Fenstermacher is a Board-Certified Internal Medicine Physician and Fellowship-Trained Integrative Medicine Physician with a practice in Albuquerque New Mexico as well as a Telemedicine practice available in other states.