Old wives' tale cures for the common cold

Updated February 21, 2017

Before modern medicine came around and scientists discovered that colds and flu are caused by untreatable viruses, people around the world had already been busy figuring out treatments and remedies that appeared to cure the sniffles. With very little resources to choose from, many cures came from easily available foods or herbs that didn't cost the earth or could be picked from the hedgerows. Other remedies were based on luxuries that not only appeared to help the symptoms of a cold, but also improved the sick person's sense of wellbeing.

"In England, over-the-counter (OTC) cold medicines are probably the most widely used type of medication (for colds). However, there isn’t much evidence that certain OTC medications are effective."

NHS Choices

Inedible remedies

Many folk medicine cures for colds are based on something that the sick person eats or drinks, but as many people, especially children, lose their appetite with a cold, other remedies are also options.

The wisdom of treating a cold with steam, for example, was passed down because of its effectiveness. Many children throughout the generations have been ordered to sit at the kitchen table bent over a big bowl of boiling water with a towel covering their head, inhaling the steam to ease congested breathing. Some mothers also added medicinal liquids like menthol or camphor preparations to the water to give the steam an extra element of specialness. Whether the instantly identifiable smell actually has an effect or not is questionable, but the placebo effect of a medicinal-smelling treatment is possibly strong in both children and adults. The smell of a vapour rub that is administered to the chest to help clear the airways is also strongly evocative of being taken care of as a child for many people, thus boosting the placebo effect. A much less reassuring alternative remedy for colds is a saltwater gargle, which according to the NHS, has some basis to it, as it eases sore throat and congestion in the nose. Another old Irish remedy is to boil some nettles in a muslin cloth and then slap it on the back of the person suffering from the cold, in the hope the heat and the nettle vapour would help reduce congestion.

Remedies made from common foods

If a family didn't have lots of money, or didn't have access to a doctor, which a lot of British people historically didn't, then making a remedy for a cold out of what was in the house, or what could be traded for with a neighbour, was an option.

Due to the loss of appetite common with the cold, soups were a popular type of traditional remedy, as were hot mushy foods like porridges which were soft enough not to hurt a sore throat. Chicken soup is a well-known treatment for colds, which according to the Mayo Clinic in the U.S., may help ease symptoms through an anti-inflammatory action, as well as increasing the rate at which congestive mucus makes its way through the respiratory system. Garlic soup is a traditional recipe from the Indian subcontinent, which possibly has the same effects as chicken soup, along with increased sweating from additional spices. Hydration and salt replenishment also contribute to the beneficial effects of soups during a cold. In Scotland, a preparation of oatmeal, milk and treacle was also given to people suffering from colds.

Drinks as remedies

While soups and porridges can keep the body going during a cold, hot drinks make up the majority of the traditional cold remedies that are still used today. Certain pharmaceutical manufacturers have also realised the benefit of a cold or flu remedy in the form of a hot drink, often with the addition of cold-friendly ingredients like lemon or blackcurrant.

Blackcurrant wine was a traditional Scottish remedy, as was raspberry vinegar or wine made from rowan berries. In Ireland, adding an onion and black pepper to milk, boiling it and then drinking the flavoured milk is an old remedy, and of course the hot toddy was, and still is, popular in all parts of the U.K. and Ireland. Basically a hot toddy is whiskey, hot water and sugar, with lemon and cloves to taste. Teas are also common remedies for colds, with spices and herbs the basis for most. Ginger tea made from fresh ginger and hot water is one remedy, and the strong scent of eucalyptus tea is also an option. Liquorice, according to the Yorkshire Life newspaper, is a cold remedy even older than Christianity, and the pleasant taste and smell of peppermint tea has also been used to treat colds and other respiratory infections. Elderflower tea is another hedgerow remedy made from flowers picked directly off the tree in summer and dried for use in winter.

As colds are caused by a variety of viruses, antibiotics do not work on them, and no cure is yet known. Treatment is based on easing the symptoms, and rest and lots of liquids are recommended by the NHS.

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About the Author

Jillian O'Keeffe has been a freelance writer since 2009. Her work appears in regional Irish newspapers including "The Connacht Tribune" and the "Sentinel." O'Keeffe has a Master of Arts in journalism from the National University of Ireland, Galway and a Bachelor of Science in microbiology from University College Cork.