5 Cold and Flu Remedies That Actually Work — and Some That Don’t

Woman Blowing Nose
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
Apr 6, 2022

COVID-19 rules are loosening around the country. And more people are doing things they missed (see: weddings and happy hour drinks) after two years of mask mandates, lockdowns, and remote work and learning. One thing that’s also making a return: common illnesses. Cases of the flu, for example, are returning to pre-pandemic levels after the CDC says they were “unusually low” during the first year of COVID-19. This season’s flu vaccine also isn’t as effective as the CDC had hoped.

So, many people who're coming down with colds and flus might be reaching for home remedies to find some relief. Think: Vicks VapoRub and chicken noodle soup. But while grandma might insist they all work, some might actually make you feel worse. So let’s talk about which ones to keep in the rotation — as well as the ones to toss. 

Which home remedies should I pass on this cold and flu season?

Taking Antibiotics

Whether or not antibiotics treat cold or flu can be confusing. A WHO survey found that 64% of people thought it could be used to treat these viral infections. But antibiotics actually only work against bacterial infections (think: strep throat or whooping cough), not viruses. 

Taking antibiotics incorrectly is no small deal. Your body could grow resistant to them, which means that when you actually need them, they might not work as effectively. While we’re on the topic, you might want to also consider throwing out that leftover bottle of antibiotic you were once prescribed — it could be expired, and less effective, anyway. 

Downing a “Hot Toddy”

If you’ve ever been offered a whisky to shoo away a cold, then a hot toddy seems like the next level up: It’s a mix of whisky, lemon juice, hot water, and sometimes honey. People say it helps with coughing, fevers, and headaches. But while alcohol might distract you from the discomfort you’re feeling, it could also dehydrate your body. You can almost hear your doctor reminding you to ‘drink lots of fluids.’ That’s because keeping the body hydrated helps the immune system fight off illness. Instead of a hot toddy: Hydrate with warm water (with a little honey and lemon, if you want). It'll have the potential benefit of easing a sore throat. Or, you can try mint tea

Lying down in bed or on the couch

Here’s permission to actually do nothing when you’re not feeling well. Because holing up in bed or on the couch could speed up your recovery. But lying down flat on your back could make your congestion symptoms worse. Because it can cause mucus to build up in your nose and sinuses. And possibly agitate other symptoms, like that nagging cough. 

Elevating your head helps. Experts say to sleep with a pillow propped up against your headboard so the mucus can flow out of the body. 

Rubbing Vicks VapoRub inside your nose

Ol’ reliable with its unmistakable menthol scent. Everyone knows someone who swears by it. But they might’ve been using it wrong. VapoRub should be applied to the chest or neck to help relieve congestion or ease a cough. How it works: Its scent is so strong that it can trigger the brain into thinking you’re breathing better. But some people take it one step further and rub the cream in their nostrils because they believe it’ll help unclog their noses. Word of advice: don’t do that. Topical camphor (one of the main ingredients in Vicks) can be toxic to the liver if it's soaked up through the mucous membranes. 

Which home remedies for cold and flu actually work?

Getting good rest 

Your immune system needs ample Zzz's to heal from an infection. That’s because proteins in the immune system called cytokines are released when sleeping. They help the immune system target your infection. And sleep deprivation could cause their levels to drop. We have some tips to make sure your doze is delightful.  

Gargling with salt water 

This one’s for all the people whose throats get especially sore during a cold or flu. Add no more than half a teaspoon of salt to an 8-ounce glass of warm water and stir until it dissolves. Then gargle the mixture at the back of your throat (as long as you’d like), swish it around the mouth and spit it out. The warm concoction can help soothe a sore throat while also working to block certain harmful pathogens.

Adding moisture to the air 

Moist air helps to thin out and loosen mucus that’s likely dried out from dry air. Adding water vapor to the air with a cool-mist vaporizer or humidifier can help to prevent irritation in the nose and throat. But remember to keep them clean, because a dirty one can actually help spread bacteria and fungi.

Eating chicken soup 

Chicken soup is full of essential nutrients that might help boost your immune system. Just the chicken alone has a compound called carnosine, which is anti-inflammatory. And then there are the veggies (think: onions and garlic) that give you a dose of phytonutrients. These will help support your immune health. The bones and joint tissue, when cooked in the broth, release properties that also help with inflammation. But remember: your hydration routine should include more than just a warm bowl. Make water your new best friend. 

Using OTC pain relievers  

Taking Tylenol or Advil might help with the achiness that comes with the flu and a cold. But be sure to talk to your doctor before taking any medication to help when you’re feeling ill.

theSkimm 

The cold and flu remedies from your childhood probably come with warm, nostalgic feelings. But separating fact from fiction, and incorporating the remedies that are science-backed, are what will help you get back to feeling your best.

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