by Karen Quinto

(written for Afexa Life Sciences- Makers of Cold-FX)

With the advent of modern medicine, it doesn’t matter how bad your cold gets – the pharmaceutical industry has you covered. Drug store shelves are stacked with a medley of over-the-counter, fast-acting, extra-strength, daytime, night-time, anytime remedies, be they pills, syrups, gels, gumdrops or freeze pops.

If there was ever a time to get a cold, now would be it.

But ancient civilizations didn’t have it so easy. Back in the old days, they made all kinds of whacky concoctions to cure a wide range of ailments. Relieving yourself of the cold was sometimes more painful than suffering from the cold itself.

While some were based on superstition, like those that blamed evil spirits for the illness, a handful of homemade remedies from as early as the first century BCE have medicinal properties that account for their popularity even today.

Here are some traditional ways to alleviate the cold that have passed the test of time — and of science.

In one nostril and out the other

It might look like a genie lamp, but there’s no magic wish inside. Instead, the neti pot is filled with 0.9 to 3 per cent saline solution that gets poured into one nostril and flushes out the sinus cavity before exiting the other.

Neti pot sales skyrocketed after Dr. Oz popularized it on an episode of Oprah episode in April 2007, but neti pots—a form of saline nasal irrigation therapy which rinses the sinus with saltwater—has been around since the Vedic Age. According to Dr. David Rabago and Dr. Aleksandria Zgierska from the University of Wisconsin, it works by cleansing the nasal mucous. This increases the movement of the little hair-like structures called cilia, which sweep away dust and infectious agents and trap them in the mucous lining.

The treatment has been found not only to be effective against the cold, but also against sinusitis, allergies and acute upper respiratory infections. Best of all, it is safe and has little to no side effects.

What irritates you can only make you stronger

Not only is mustard good with ketchup and pickles in your burger, it’s good for your circulation too. Brassica nigra, more commonly known as Black Mustard, is used as an irritant to encourage blood flow to areas of the body that are congested. The active ingredient, allylisothiocyanate, stimulates the immune system by bringing blood to the affected area.

Reader’s Digest “A guide to common health problems”, lists a mustard foot bath (using one tablespoon of mustard powder per litre of hot water) as one of the ways to relieve congestions from the common cold. Dr. Alfred Fogel, author of the highly acclaimed book “The Nature Doctor”, alternatively suggests the mustard plaster, a topical paste used to treat the cold, bronchitis, asthma and pneumonia. Care should be taken not to apply the paste directly to the skin because allylisothiocyanate is a potent irritant. To avoid its blistering burn, a layer of grease or salve should be applied first.

Medicinal use of mustard dates back as early as the 2nd century BCE when mustard was used as antidote for scorpion bites and other poisons. It played a significant role in battling the Yellow Fever epidemic of the 18th century when the fever meant imminent death. Nowadays, you can buy a bottle of mustard for five dollars, but during the Great Fever it was worth its weight in gold—literally.

 A leech ‘nose’ how to get the job done

Hirudotherapy, a fancy way of saying “getting sucked by a leech”, was all the rage in the Roman period. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, approved of bloodletting to drain “bad blood” out of the body.

To treat the common cold, the leech was hung off the tip of the nose like an ornament a Christmas tree. Blood was drained by the parasitic worm until it got full and fell off on its own. While it may have the same effect as mustard in combating circulation problem, having “bad blood” has nothing to do with viral infections.

People paid a high price for this misconception. Leech saliva has a protein called Hepsin, which prevents clotting when feeding on a host. If the leech detached improperly, it would leave an incurable wound and the person would bleed to death. Modern doctors have found a benefit to this property.

Dr. Karsten Knobloch, a reconstructive surgeon from Hannover Medical School in Germany, attest to the usefulness of leeches in plastic surgery and microsurgery. In a 2007 literature review, he said that leeches are still being used to naturally fuse tiny vessels together during the healing process. Applying the sucker to the affected area helps minimize clotting and encourages blood flow.

So while Hirudotherapy should be crossed off your list of cold remedies, you may want to consider it for, say, a nose job.

Soup Science 

The chicken soup needs no introduction. It is the most popular and most uncontested traditional cold remedy since the ancient Greek civilization. In the 12th century, the Egyptian Jewish physician and philosopher, Moshe ben Maimonides, wrote about the benefits of chicken soup for respiratory tract symptoms.

In 1993, Dr. Stephen Rennard put the soup through scientific scrutiny. Suspecting an anti-inflammatory value, he took his grandmother-in-law’s chicken soup recipe to the lab. Evidence shows that chicken soup inhibits neutrophils—a type of white blood cells that causes inflammation during a cold infection. Chicken soup, it turns out, calms inflammation that is characteristic of cold symptoms.

Although the study was not conclusive, the positive result was nevertheless seen not just in the chicken and not just in the vegetables but in the combination of both.

“This suggests that whole chicken soup may contain a mixture of active agents that synergize each other in order to achieve their beneficial effects,” he says.

So next time you get a cold, think about how simple your trip to the drugstore is. Whatever your grab off the shelf, just be glad someone invented it—whether two or two thousand years ago.

Knobloch K, Gohritz A, Busch K, Spies M, Vogt PM. (2007). “Hirudo medicinalis-leech applications in plastic and reconstructive microsurgery–a literature review” [Article in German]. Vereinigung der Deutschen Plastischen Chirurgen. Vol. 39 (2):103-7

Papavramidou N, Christopoulou-Aletra H. (2009). “Medicinal use of leeches in the texts of ancient Greek, Roman and early Byzantine writers”. Internal Medicine Journal. Vol. 39 (9):624-7

Rennard BO, Ertl RF, Gossman GL, Robbins RA, Rennard SI. (2000). “Chicken soup inhibits neutrophil chemotaxis in vitro”. Chest. Vol. 118 (4): 1150–7.

Rabago D, Zgierska A. (2009). “Saline Nasal Irrigation for Upper Respiratory Conditions”. American Academy of Family Physician. Vol. 80 (10):1117-1119.

Porshinsky BS, Saha S, Grossman MD, Beery Ii P, Stawicki S. (2011). “Clinical uses of the medicinal leech: A practical review”. Journal of Postgraduate Medicine. Vol. 57 (1): 65-71

Vogel, A. (1991). “The nature doctor: a manual of traditional and complementary medicine (Completely new and rev. ed.)”. New Canaan, Connecticut: Keats Pub “A Guide to Common Health Problems – Cold and Flu.” Health, Food, Gardening, DIY and Money | Reader’s Digest UK. 24 June 2005. <;.