Two Colds Converged in a Yellow Wood

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With Back-to-School Germs Spreading like, well, Germs, What’s the Best Natural Cold Symptom Relief, and how Effective Is the Flu Shot, Anyway?
I’m in the feverish throes of a head-chest cold, so cold and flu remedies are on my mind, literally, at the moment. The first thing I turn to at the first inkling of illness is an effervescent blast of vitamin C via either Emergen-C or Airborne. Perhaps it’s pure placebo effect, but I’m confident they’ve cut many a head cold off at the (nasal) pass(age). My whole family imbibes: My husband doesn’t believe it works but humors me because he likes the taste; I started dosing my five-year-old with raspberry Emergen-C (aka “pink drink”) when she entered the Petri dish that is preK. (I also like to credit the immune-boosting properties of extended breastfeeding — she nursed until nearly three—for her rarely getting sick and having nary an ear infection thus far.) My 15-year-old stepson, who prefers Airborne, rarely comes down with a cold, despite participating in high-contact sports (football and wrestling).

For symptoms that are more of the “I must lie down and sleep right now, here on this subway platform” flu-like variety, we use Oscillococcinum (full disclosure: I haven’t received samples or coupons, and didn’t even know how to pronounce it until listening to this. It’s a homeopathic formula that’s been around for 65 years. It’s FDA regulated, beats out the placebo in clinical trials, and reduces all major symptoms within two days if taken immediately, according to earnest video testimonials by family practitioners on the product website. Boiron, its manufacturer, also markets Chestal. I was skeptical of a cough syrup whose ingredients seem to amount to honey and good vibes, but I’ve found it effective as an expectorant (on par with Mucinex), plus little kids dig the taste.

So, here’s my (personal, unproven, highly unscientific) protocol for fending off a cold:

1) Ingest far more Emergen-C and/or Airborne than the package recommends. I add it to water, of course, but for a sore throat I’ll eat Emergen-C powder straight. (The suggested-usage label listed this as a way to take it, back when you could only find the stuff at health food co-ops; it doesn’t anymore, for some reason.) I take Oscillococcinum as well if feeling flu-ey.

2) Get into as hot a bath as possible that’s generously spiked with Epsom salts. This amusing and informative article questions the total lack of scientific evidence that Epsom salts alleviate muscle soreness or detoxify the body. Perhaps it’s another placebo to which I’ve guilelessly prescribed, but I’ve used Epsom baths to tackle colds—and muscle aches when training for a marathon—for, geez, decades at this point. I was first introduced to them while in my 20s at a women’s Japanese-style bathhouse in San Francisco where spry, wizened matrons slathered themselves with the salts while in the sauna, singing their arthritis-alleviating praises. I also add essential oils of lavender and lemongrass (because I like how they smell; their purported antidepressant and antibacterial properties can’t hurt, either) or eucalyptus oil and Dr Bronner’s peppermint soap (because they’re decongestants, plus reading the “magic soap” label takes one’s mind off of being sick). Hot tubs and saunas are great, too: The purpose is to raise one’s body temp, effectively inducing a fever to jumpstart one’s own virus-fighting abilities.

3) Take to my bed. Getting as much sleep as possible when under the weather ain’t folk wisdom.

And now…to flu shot, or not? According to a new article from Scientific American, the efficacy of this popular vaccine is negligible for the groups it’s been most touted to protect: elderly folks and children under two. There’s a lack of comprehensive controlled studies for the older group, and the version of the vaccine—a live inhalant—that may “protect against infection and death” isn’t FDA approved for adults over 50. “For kids under the age of two, the currently licensed vaccines ‘are not significantly more efficacious than placebo.’” For older children, “The shot reduces the absolute risk that a child will catch the flu by about 3.6%.” And how effective is it for adults under 65? “… adults have about a 4% chance of catching the flu if they don’t get the vaccine and about a 1% chance if they do.” Um … I’ll take my chances, considering what isn’t covered in the article: how many people develop flu-like symptoms as the result of receiving the shot, which I did the one time I rolled up my sleeve at the CVS flu clinic, when my daughter was a newborn and her housemates felt bullied into the shot by her pediatrician. The other two vaccinees—her dad and then-10-year-old brother—got the full-on flu that winter, despite the shot (which was when, come to think of it, we first tried Osciwhateveryoucallit). And of course, as Scientific American reminds us, “the vaccine won’t protect against the nearly 200 viruses that cause flu-like symptoms but aren’t actually the flu.”

So, with apologies to Robert Frost (and the poem from whence this post’s title was borrowed), I guess ours is the way less traveled by—and hopefully it will make all the difference, this cold season.

Please feel free to share your go-to cold and flu treatments!