Can 'old wives' tales' really help fight colds?

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With cold season upon us, do seasonal old wives' tales actually work? [Photo: Getty]

Cold season is well and truly upon us, with the sound of coughing and spluttering everywhere.

With no go-to drug to fight off the virus, many rely on methods gleaned from “old wives’ tales” to combat the infection and speed up their recovery.

From drinking chicken soup to never going to bed with wet hair – is there any science to back up this sort of “advice”?

‘Drink hot water with lemon, ginger and honey’

A steaming hot drink may be just what the doctor ordered when you are under the weather.

“Having a hot drink may be effective for moistening and warming the upper respiratory system,” Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan, told Yahoo UK.

“And has been shown to provide immediate and sustained relief of a runny nose, coughing, sneezing and sore throat.”

Scientists from Cardiff University asked 30 people to sip on a hot, fruity drink while battling a cold or flu.

The patients reported “immediate and sustained relief” from their cold symptoms, and even felt less chilly and tired.

The scientists concluded their results “support the folklore that a hot, tasty drink is beneficial”.

Whether the addition of lemon, ginger and honey gives the cold remedy a boost is less clear-cut.

Like all fruits and vegetables, lemons are rich in vitamin C.

This essential nutrient is “one of the biggest immune system boosters of all”, according to Cleveland Clinic.

And the potential cough benefits of honey were recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2001.

Scientists from Shahid Sadoughi University in Israel gave 139 coughing children either 2.5ml of honey or the over-the-counter cough suppressants dextromethorphan and diphenhydramine.

Twenty-four hours later, those given honey saw their “cough frequency score” go down significantly more than the other youngsters’.

Scientists from the University of Calabar in Nigeria also looked at two studies on the subject, with a total of 265 coughing children.

They found honey improved symptoms more than doing nothing, “maybe slightly better than diphenhydramine” and “did not differ from dextromethorphan”.

Many parents may prefer going down the natural route rather than giving their children medication.

Dextromethorphan has been linked to insomnia, while diphenhydramine can cause drowsiness, according to a scientist from the British Columbia Children's Hospital in Vancouver.

Honey can contain bacteria that cause botulism and therefore should not be given to babies in their first year.

While ginger does not have the same evidence behind it, many find the zingy taste refreshing and swear by its anti-inflammatory properties to get them feeling well again.

‘Don’t go to bed with wet hair’

Many of us have been warned of the “dangers” of going to bed with wet hair.

But Dr Brewer is not convinced.

“A cold is caused by one of over a 100 different types of virus,” she said, “so symptoms of a cold can only occur if you are exposed to an infection, rather than by sleeping with wet hair by itself.”

Scientists from Cardiff University looked at all the available evidence linking icy temperatures to the onset of colds.

They found that “placing” cold viruses in the nose then exposing it to wintery conditions “failed to demonstrate any effect on susceptibility to infection”.

The scientists add however that cold weather could cause blood vessels in the nose to narrow.

This may prevent the immune response from being properly activated, “converting an asymptomatic viral infection into a symptomatic infection”.

Whether this theory holds any weight is yet to be proven.

‘Feed a cold, starve a fever’

This old wives’ tale is said to stem from the belief eating “warms us up” on the inside, while fasting cools the body down.

While many of us have no doubt been told this saying before, no “firm evidence” supports it.

“Listen to your body,” Dr Brewer told MailOnline.

“If you feel hungry, have something nutritious to fuel the body as your immune system fights an infection.”

While a fever may zap your appetite, Dr Brewer stresses it is important to nourish your body while under the weather.

This will help keep the immune system strong enough to fight the underlying infection, she added.

‘Take antibiotics for colds’

Antibiotics are only effective against certain bacterial infections.

But that doesn’t stop patients pressuring their GP to dole them out for their cold.

At least 30% of antibiotics prescribed in the US are “unnecessary”, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2015, antibiotic use in England alone had increased by 6.5% over the past four years, government data shows.

“Antibiotics only work against bacteria, through actions such as disrupting their cell wall to kill them or suppressing their division and growth while your own immune system fights them off,” Dr Brewer told Yahoo UK.

“Viruses have a very different biology and do not respond to these actions.”

Antibiotics are unlike many other drugs in that the more they are used, the less effective they are.

Random mutations take place within bacteria at a rapid rate. Exposure to an antibiotic “selects” for mutations that protect the bug from destruction.

The bacteria can then pass this genetic advantage to other bugs and future generations.

The inappropriate prescription of antibiotics has led to a rise in “superbugs” that do not respond to most antibiotics, for example MRSA and C.difficile.

The WHO calls the antibiotic resistance crisis “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today”, warning we are heading for a “post-antibiotic era”.

“Serious infections can kill and there’s no doubt effective antibiotics can save lives,” Dr Brewer said.

“When they are overused, however, bacteria can adapt and become resistant to their effects.”

Dr Brewer stressed that you do not need to see your GP for a cold or cough “unless the infection spreads to your chest”.

Warning signs include fever, breathlessness, and coughing up thick green phlegm and chest pain, particularly when breathing in.

The NHS recommends patients see a GP if their cough or cold has not cleared in three weeks or suddenly gets worse.

Those with a long-term condition such as diabetes or kidney disease, or people with a weak immune system, such as chemotherapy patients, should also seek help right away, it adds.

‘Chicken soup cures colds’

A warming bowl of soup helps to soothe the winter blues away.

But whether it eases colds could depend on the recipe.

“Garlic is anti-inflammatory, which can help the immune system fight germs,” Dr Kathryn Basford, a GP at Zava, told MailOnline.

Dr Brewer says, however, while chicken soup is nutritious and comforting, you should not expect it to “magically” rid your body of the virus.

As with any steaming hot drink, soup may help to soothe your sore throat and could clear a blocked nose, she said.