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Honing in on Cold Remedies

If you've got a cold, what should you take?
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If you've got a cold, what should you take? Purveyors of alternative medicine offer a dazzling array of choices -- but only a few have science behind them. In this, the first of a three-part series on cold remedies, we'll look at herbs.

What is it about the common cold that makes it so tough to beat? For all its success against other illnesses, the pharmaceutical industry hasn't yet found a cold drug that does more than suppress symptoms. Most come with side effects. But because colds have bugged people as long as there have been people, there's no shortage of old-time remedies from which to choose. Here's what science has found out so far about some favorites.

Steam Treatments

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There's no definitive answer as to whether steam can wilt the cold virus. A 1989 British Medical Journal study had 87 people with colds breathe room air for 20 minutes. Those who breathed air that had been humidified and heated to 109.4 degrees had only half as many cold symptoms in the following days as those who breathed air heated to 86 degrees.

But a 1994 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found, among 68 volunteers with colds, no differences in symptoms between those who received a 60-minute treatment of steam heated to 109.4 degrees and those who inhaled steam at 68 degrees.

If you want to treat your cold with steam, you can boil water, place your head over the pot, and drape a towel over your head, creating a tent that traps the steam and brings it to your face and nasal passages. You can also use a facial steamer for these purposes. Steam yourself for about 15 minutes at a time up to once an hour, recommends Patrick Barron, an Orlando naturopath.

Chicken Soup

It's more than an old wives' tale. A 1978 study published in the journal Chest found that drinking hot chicken soup increased the nasal mucous velocity in 15 healthy subjects from an average of 6.9 to 9.2 millimeters per minute. And speeding up the flow of mucus, researchers theorized, could move more viruses out of nasal passageways.

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