Shopping list for cold season

Folk remedies sometimes lack scientific evidence that they work. But if they're still passed around generation after generation, could there be something to them? Here are a few kitchen pantry and fridge items that seem to soothe several of the more common cold symptoms.

Peppermint: Say this five times fast: The peppermint plant provides plenty of potent payoffs! Because peppermint contains menthol, it may help to thin out mucus, unblocking congestion and breaking up bad coughs. The leaves of the peppermint plant can be plucked and added to hot water for a comforting tea to help pacify a sore throat. Or its oil can be extracted and dripped into a pot of steamy water or into a vaporizer to add moisture into the dry air of fall and winter.

Peppers: The capsaicin found in hot peppers like jalapeno, bell, cayenne, and poblano is an irritant. Eating foods featuring these spicy peppers will waft the irritant into your nose, your throat, and your lungs, stimulating secretions and loosening mucus.

Ginger: When steamed in hot water, ginger emits a warm, spicy vapour that may warm you up if you feel shivery. Shave off about a teaspoon's worth of fresh ginger from one of those big knotty roots and add to a steaming cup of water for a homemade ginger tea.

Cinnamon: Like ginger, cinnamon offers a mildly spicy flavour and a natural warming sensation. Stir ground cinnamon into hot water or place a few whole cinnamon sticks into a pot of boiling water to create a spicy, nose-opening mist.

Honey: Whether drizzled into your ginger or peppermint tea or spread onto a bun, honey is a sweet treat for cold sufferers. In a 2007 study, parents whose children received a teaspoonful of buckwheat honey reported fewer overnight coughing symptoms and improved sleep compared to the over-the-counter cough medications.

Lemon: This sour citrus fruit often features prominently in homemade cold relievers. It could be because the juice of a lemon bursts with vitamin C. Staying hydrated during a cold is crucial, and lemon lends a bit of flavour to all the water you'll have to drink. Squeeze lemon juice into a cup of hot water and stir in a teaspoon of honey or ginger to ease the pain of a sore throat.

Salt water: Pouring salt on a wound would be nasty, but to a sore, scratchy throat it's delightful. That's because a salt water mix helps to reduce inflammation and can cleanse the throat. Dissolve half a teaspoon of salt into a glass of water, gargle a little at a time, spitting out and repeating as needed.

Chicken soup: This simple comfort food sits atop many a list of folksy home cold remedies. True, most hot liquids have a modest positive effect on cold symptoms and most soups are nutritious - but what gives chicken soup its particular magic? Numerous researchers have tried to pin down the science of the soup. The best they've come up with so far is that the ingredients of chicken soup work together to fight the body's inflammatory response, which kicks into high gear when infected with a cold virus. Science aside, soup just goes down easy when you're not feeling well.

Tips for clearing congestion

Nasal congestion, a common symptom of the common cold, often causes annoyance and discomfort. Congestion happens because of inflammation of the tissues lining the inside of your nose - not because of the goopy, thick mucus.

Vaporize congestion: Some research has shown that cold viruses seem to spread more easily in dry air. Hook up a cool-mist humidifier or vaporizer and feel the relief a bit of moisture can provide. Try adding a couple of drops of oil of peppermint or oil of eucalyptus to the water tank. If you have neither humidifier nor vaporizer, create a comparable effect by placing a shallow pan of water in the center of the room and letting evaporation take its course. To get more a direct "humidifier effect," take a steamy shower.

Flush out congestion: When you're "stuffed up" - the tissues lining your nasal passage are inflamed, your nose feels so congested, and breathing has become a challenge - it can be tempting to duck your head under the faucet and let the water run. Instead of resorting to that, try using a saline nasal spray or doing some nasal "irrigation" using a neti pot or nasal syringe.

Blow out congestion - the right way: You'd think blowing your nose would be an easy thing, right? But the tissue issue is more complicated than you might think!

First of all, are you even doing it right? Some research shows that blowing too hard may cause very high pressure in your nose and may push the cold virus back into your sinuses. The effects of this are not clear, but researchers advise to blow gently. Press one nostril shut while you gently blow out through the other.

Another issue is the skin irritation from too much rubbing. Decrease friction by adding a dollop of gentle lotion to your tissue before using, or else buy the type pre-treated with moisturizer. And don’t forget to throw the tissue out immediately after using it to prevent the spread of the cold virus.

Introduce your nose to the neti pot

Leave it to Oprah Winfrey to convince millions of people to use something that looks like a cross between a watering can and Aladdin's lamp to pour water through their noses! The neti pot, long a standby of yogic and Ayurvedic practitioners, is an unlikely health hero. The squat little ceramic pot used for nasal cleansing - the flooding of the nasal passages to clear out mucus congestion - was introduced to Oprah's wide audience by Dr. Mehmet Oz in early 2007. Since then, search engines have been flooded with the terms "neti pot" and spelling variations of its alias, "nose bidet." So, what is a neti pot anyway?

What are the neti pot's origins?

The word neti is Sanskrit for "nasal cleansing." In the traditions of Ayurveda, a natural medical system that originated in India thousands of years ago, jala neti is the cleansing of the nasal passages with salt water. This is where the neti pot comes in.

Why would I want to use a neti pot?

If you experience nasal allergies or sinus symptoms (congestion, headaches, pressure), or if you just get a lot of colds, nasal irrigation with a neti pot may be one option for relief. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin determined that irrigating the nose with salt water can improve sinus symptoms and reduce the need for medication for people who suffer frequently from sinusitis (sinus infections). When you flush out your nasal passages with warm salt water, you encourage blocked-up mucus to get a move on out of your sinuses, alleviating pressure and congestion and discouraging the accumulation of bacteria that can cause sinusitis.

How do I safely use a neti pot?

Because of increased demand and popularity, neti pots may be purchased at many pharmacies or health food stores. Prices are usually around the $20 to $30 range. Follow these safe neti pot steps:

  • Fill the neti pot with warm water that has been pre-boiled. Tap water may contain bacteria that can cause further infections. Stir in a quarter teaspoon of non-iodized salt or a satchet of the pre-mixed neti-pot cleanser.
  • Stand over the sink or a basin. Tilt your head to one side and place the lip of the neti pot's spout just inside of your top nostril. Breathe through your mouth.
  • Tip the neti pot up until the water begins to flow slowly in through one nostril and then down and out into the basin through the other nostril. Let the water flow for about 20 to 30 seconds or until comfortable.
  • Switch sides.

How often should I use the neti pot?

Ayurveda recommends jala neti as a daily hygienic practice. Depending on the results you experience and your own personal needs, you can figure out what works best for you.

Is there anyone who shouldn't try using a neti pot?

If you have certain nasal conditions (including chronic nosebleeds, a deviated septum, or nasal polyps) or symptoms of a sinus infection (e.g. cough, discharge, fever, or headache), you should check with your doctor before you try using the neti pot.

Humidifiers: 8 things to know before you buy

The cold, dry air of fall and winter may come as a relief after a sticky summer, or it may make us mutter darkly as we crank up the heaters and huddle indoors. But either way, the dry air can bring with it dry skin, scratchy throats, congestion, and nosebleeds.

Relief from the dryness can come, whatever the season, from a humidifier to help put some moisture back into the air. It may also help to soothe the symptoms that result from colds and the flu.

But before you head out to get your hands on a humidifier, do you know which will you choose - a steam humidifier or a cool-mist humidifier? Consider these facts before you make your choice.

Steam humidifiers

  • Also known as "vaporizers," steam humidifiers use heat to boil the water you add to their tanks and emit a hissing stream of warm mist into the air.
  • The boiling kills off any mould or bacteria that may grow in the water.
  • Because it creates heat, a vaporizer can make a room feel muggy and humid, making them a more natural choice during colder weather.
  • But because it creates heat, a vaporizer also poses a burn risk and is probably not the best choice for use in a child's room, unless it is kept at a safe distance from where the child can reach.

Cool-mist humidifiers

  • Water is not heated at all in this type of humidifier. Instead, a motor agitates the water until it creates a cool mist. No heat, no burn risk. Also, since it emits cooler air, a cool-mist humidifier feels more pleasant and refreshing during warmer months.
  • However, since the water in a cool-mist humidifier is never heated, there is more risk of bacteria growth. That's why it's important to follow the manufacturer's directions for maintaining and cleaning the product. When you switch on a humidifier filled with bacteria-ridden water you send the bacteria spores airborne, which can spell trouble for people dealing with asthma or other breathing difficulties.
  • The bacteria problem means you should never leave water in a cool-mist humidifier when it's not being used. Fend off bacteria by only refilling the water tank right before you intend to use the humidifier.
  • If possible, use distilled water. Tap water isn't necessarily bad, but distilled water will likely contain fewer tiny but potentially harmful particles that can be released into the air by a humidifier.

Colds and flu: when to call in sick

To call in sick or not to call in sick? The question arises often during cold and flu season. Deciding whether you should take a day off may affect more than just you and your sickly self. Say it's Tuesday morning, and you awake coughing, sniffling, and sneezing - but you have a deadline to meet. You have a choice. You can either:

  • Slog in to work, spewing sneezes and rubbing your nose raw with tissue. Your eyes glaze over as you stare at your computer screen. Despite your attempts to not cough in co-workers' faces, you deposit germs all over doorknobs, keyboards, and the cupboards in the office kitchen. You make your deadline, send an email to your boss (though in your mind fog, you forget to attach a crucial document), and then leave the office exhausted and sicker than you started out.


  • Call in sick and sincerely apologize to your boss about the deadline, promising to send it in as soon as you're well. Stay at home to rest and recuperate. You sleep a bit, drink lots of fluids, and spread germs only to your immediate surroundings. Your cat gets tired of your coughing and goes to the other room. By late in the afternoon, you're feeling a little better. One day closer to the end of this cold.

If you chose the first option, you're guilty of a new-fangled work offence: presenteeism. The opposite of absenteeism, it means to come to work while ill, get little done, and possibly spread germs to your co-workers. People who soldier on through their illnesses by showing up at work can actually encourage more illness and cost the company money in lost productivity.

Two days after catching a cold is when symptoms usually begin, and this is the most contagious time, when people are most likely to pass on the cold to someone else. These are the days when you notice the first signs and symptoms - sneezing, runny nose, cough. Once symptoms appear, they can last anywhere from two to 14 days and remain contagious until up to three days after they clear up.

You can spread the flu virus in the day or two before symptoms set in, but you won't even know yet that you're a contagion danger. Once you're in the thick of your flu, you'll remain contagious until your symptoms have resolved. This can take a week or two.

A few sniffles and sneezes, a cough now and then - these aren't big contagion dangers as long as you practice healthy hygiene around your workplace. Wash your hands more often with soap and water, or keep a bottle of hand sanitizer convenient. Keep your hands and germs to yourself by avoiding touching too many things around your workplace. Wipe your nose or sneeze into disposable tissues and throw them in the garbage immediately after you are done using them.

But for your own good and the sake of your coworkers' health, follow these guidelines for when you should call in sick:

  • Feeling feverish: A fever is a sure-fire sign that you need to take a day off. It means that your body is working to fight off infection.
  • Ache for a break: Like a fever, body aches are signs that your body is battling a strong virus. During a cold, you may feel a bit achy, but the flu can bring on more intense body aches.
  • Severe sore throat: Minor throat pain can occur with a cold or flu virus infection. But severe sore throat may be a sign of a bacterial infection that requires a visit to your doctor.
  • Seeing colours: Two colours are sick day tip-offs - pink and green. Green mucus is a sign of bacterial infection, and conjunctivitis, or "pinkeye," is a contagious infection commonly associated with the common cold.

If your symptoms escalate, you may have another call to make, this time to the doctor's office. Seek medical attention if:

  • You have a fever of 39.5°C (103°F) or higher.
  • Fever is accompanied by aches, fatigue, sweating, or chills.
  • Your symptoms get worse rather than better or last for more than 10 days.