Young woman in warm scarf | avoid a cold

How to beat a cold – don’t dismiss old wives’ tales

It’s a well-known fact that there are over 200 strains of the common cold – and there must be almost as many old wives’ tales about how to beat a cold or flu. But how much attention should we pay to these old sayings and beliefs?

Everyone has a tip that their granny or great auntie told them would help beat colds during the chilly winter months. Some of my favourites are from a friend whose granny told him to rub goose fat on his chest; a smart lady who always advised me to wrap a woolly scarf around my ears and nose and that lovely old saying ‘Cast ne’er a clout til May is out’, which actually means that you should keep your vest on until the ‘May’ or hawthorn blossom comes out – usually around March.

But are all these old wives’ tales just myths, or is there something more to them?

How to beat a cold

Whilst you might want to avoid drastic measures such as smearing yourself in greasy fat to beat a cold, in fact, there are many pieces of traditional advice that will help you to minimise your chances of catching a cold or flu – or at the very least help you shake them off more quickly if haven’t taken enough precautions and are unlucky enough to actually catch one.

Here is a round-up of our favourite old wives’ tales on how to beat a cold, with an explanation of the surprising facts behind the fables:

“Wrap up warmly or you’ll catch a cold”

Pretty much every mother around the world must have said this to their child at some point (especially teenagers who often have an aversion to wearing coats!). But will keeping your body warm will actually reduce the likelihood of catching a cold or flu virus?

Amazingly, it could.

There is evidence to show that when you shiver, you actually depress your immune system, making you more likely to catch a cold or the flu. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that viruses are transmitted more effectively in warm air than cold air, so you’re still better off outside in the fresh air – just remember to wear a coat!

“Feed a cold, starve a fever”

The problem with this contradictory advice is that flu and flu-like colds often start off feeling just like a nasty cold, with the fever and aching only setting in after a couple of days of coughing, sneezing and that horrible woolly-headedness that is common to both colds and flu. Plus, you often aren’t hungry when you’re ill, making the idea of food pretty unappealing.

However, it does seem that you should keep up your calorie intake if you want to beat cold or flu. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2008 showed that people on low-calorie diets during outbreaks of flu could take longer to shake off the virus than those who ate a diet containing a normal amount of calories.

Research on mice found that those who were given a reduced-calorie diet had fewer antibodies to protect them from infection – and came to a grizzly end compared with the group who were given a higher-calorie diet. Whether you choose to up your calorie intake or not, there is no debate about the need to stay well hydrated to help your body fight off a cold.

“Cover your nose and mouth”

Hundreds of years ago, people believed that colds were caused by cold air penetrating the body. They were a little off the mark, but in fact, keeping your nose and mouth covered up could help prevent you breathing in air-borne cold and flu viruses – especially if you have to travel on a crowded train or work in a busy office. Perhaps more importantly, if you have a slight sniffle, it will help to stop you passing it on to someone else.

“Drink warm soup”

Chicken soup, in particular, was first used to help prevent and cure colds two thousand years ago, but more recent studies have demonstrated that chicken contains the amino acid cysteine, which has mild decongestant properties. Recent research published in the US showed that carnosine, which is found in chicken soup, helps the immune system to fight flu, provided it is taken in the early stages.

Another study in 2000 looked at what effect chicken soup has on the immune cells that cause these symptoms and concluded, “Chicken soup may have a number of beneficial effects for an individual with a cold. These could include actions as diverse as improving hydration and nutritional status and accelerating mucosal clearance.” The study also showed that it could help the body fight inflammation, keeping airways clearer and helping to kick colds into the long grass more swiftly.

“Take a herbal remedy”

In October 2012 findings from the largest ever clinical trial of the traditional herbal remedy Echinacea were published by the Centre for the Common Cold at Cardiff University and showed the herbal remedy to be ‘safe and beneficial in preventative and symptomatic treatment for colds’. The double-blind trial of 750 participants found that those taking Echinacea over a four-month period had significantly fewer colds, and that those they did get were of a shorter duration than those experienced by the control group.

HRI Cold & Flu Echinacea is a traditional herbal medicinal product used to relieve the symptoms of the common cold and influenza type infections, based on traditional use

As with any medicine, you should always ensure that you know what you are taking, so it is wise to only choose products that carry the THR (Traditional Herbal Registration scheme) mark granted by the UK regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

You might also be interested in…