Skip to main content UVA Health logo of UVA Health
Healthy Balance

Sorry, Grandma! Debunking Common Cold Remedies

Grandmother pours cough syrup for granddaughter
Nothing can cure a cold, but some common cold remedies might help your symptoms.

How many times growing up did you hear, “don’t go outside with a wet head or you’ll get sick” or “onions and potatoes in your socks helps fight a cold”? Family members have been passing down these old wives tales about common cold remedies for generations. Pediatrician Susan Werner, MD, helps me debunk these common beliefs and get you the facts.

Food and the Common Cold Remedies

You’re starting to feel down with a cough, sore throat, runny nose and fever. You’re looking for a quick common cold remedy to feel better and get back to your busy schedule. You remember hearing these quick tricks that might help this viral infection. Let’s see if they are doctor-approved.

Chicken noodle soup or broth cures a cold.

The verdict: No.

Keyword: “cures.” A study from the early 2000s showed homemade, or store-bought chicken noodle soup or broth seems to reduce the cold symptoms. This is not a cure for the virus, but patients felt better compared to those who didn’t have chicken noodle soup or broth.

Doctor recommendation: Diet is important for your overall health, and this doesn’t change when you’re sick. Chicken noodle soup is packed with vitamins and minerals, plus it’s easy to eat with a sore throat. Chicken contains amino acids, which your body needs to boost your immune system. Add some vitamin D and omega 3 to your diet while in recovery.

Feed a cold, starve a fever.

The verdict: Yes, but depends on age and size.

When you’re sick, you burn more energy and calories with a fever. The idea behind this believe is: eating while sick creates more body heat so avoiding food may allow it to cool down.

These days, people eat more throughout the day, so this answer has changed over time. Children and adults with less body fat will need to eat more when they’re sick, whereas people with extra stored energy can eat normally.

Often when you’re sick, you don’t have much of an appetite because your immune system is focusing its energy on fighting the cold. But good nutrition is important every day and helps when you’re sick.

Doctor recommendation: After eating, sleeping is the next most important common cold remedy to take when you’re sick. Not enough sleep can weaken your immune system. Werner recommends parents not wake up a child to give them medication – just let them sleep. Ibuprofen is more lasting for pain and fever relief but don’t use if your child is throwing up.

Are you getting enough sleep?

Werner recommends for sleep:

  • Young children should sleep 11-12 hours
  • Kids age 5-12 should sleep 9-10 hours
  • Teenagers should sleep 8-9 hours
  • Adults should get 7.5 hours of sleep

Wearing garlic prevents a cold, or onions and potatoes in your socks can help fight a cold.

The verdict: No.

Don’t wear garlic, eat it as the best common cold remedy. Garlic is great for boosting your immune system with its powerful antioxidants. You can eat it raw or cooked.

For onions and potatoes, you have to eat them to get their nutritional benefits. Onions and potatoes are high in vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C. Potatoes are also easy to digest and this can help while you’re sick. Onions and garlic perk up chicken noodle soup, while potatoes in a vegetable soup can help reduce your symptoms.

Doctor recommendation: Remember to stay hydrated. Soups and teas are a great way to do this. Werner recommends you should urinate at least six times a day while sick at any age. Prepare your herbal teas or cold brew teas with honey to avoid added sugar, which can temporarily suppress your white blood cells’ ability to fight off bacteria. Honey is good for children 1 year or older. Especially kids need electrolytes when they’re sick and not eating so replace their meals with fluid like broth or an electrolyte solution.

Avoid dairy when you have a cold.

The verdict: No.

Milk is white and mucus-looking, so you might be led to think it’s increasing your phlegm. It’s not. If you can tolerate milk when you’re not sick, then don’t stop drinking it. Milk is a great source of protein and is packed with electrolytes. If you have a sore throat, you can even try a smoothie or frozen yogurt for some relief.

Doctor recommendation: Dry air causes less mucus by removing the moisture in your nose, which can make you more prone to infection. So it’s important to keep your nasal passages hydrated especially during the winter as it’s a normal cleansing action. Saltwater drops or nasal sprays work. A humidifier in your bedroom moistens the air and keeps the mucus more mobile, so you can flush out bad bacteria.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

The verdict: Yes.

One extra serving of fruits or vegetables a day can improve your immune system’s power. Studies have shown that vitamin C sourced from vegetables, fruit and leafy greens increases your body’s immune response. This is one of the common cold remedies to keep sharing with family.

Doctor recommendation: “Eat from the garden, not from the factory,” Werner stresses. Organic, fresh vegetables carry more cold-preventing vitamins than processed foods.

Activity and the Common Cold Remedies

When it’s cold outside, you grab your coat, button or zip up, find a hat and pair of gloves before venturing out. But do these extra layers of clothing prevent a cold?

You’ll get sick if you don’t wear a coat, socks or hat or if you go outside with wet hair.

The verdict: No.

You’re actually more likely to get sick in a warm room, fully clothed, and surrounded by people than you are going out in the cold wearing fewer clothes. That’s because temperature and weather changes don’t make you sick. But being within six feet of someone with a virus can.

Flu season isn’t really a season. More people get flu due to human behavior, not temperature. With colder weather, people shift to indoor activities, bringing them in close proximity to each other and raising the risk of sharing infections.

But don’t start wearing a sundress in the snow just because it doesn’t put you at risk for the flu or a cold. You should still bundle up during the winter to avoid hypothermia and frostbite.

A wet head can make you feel chilly, as heat evaporates from your body, but it can’t make you sick. For younger children, whose heads are not as thick as an adult’s, Werner recommends wearing a hat or hoodie to hold in heat.

Doctor recommendation: Get your flu vaccine every year, practice good hygiene habits and stay home when you’re sick. Also, avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth to avoid spreading germs. Clean or disinfect touched surfaces like doorknobs, desks and cellphones.

Cover your mouth with your hands when you cough or sneeze.

The verdict: No.

This is a bad habit that we need to break, Werner says. This allows germs to spread with everything you touch before you wash your hands. If you cough or sneeze into your hands, wash them with soap and water for 20-30 seconds.

Doctor recommendation: Cough into your elbow or lift your shirt up over your mouth. Some teachers and schools have joined “The Dab” craze, asking students to “Dab” when they squeeze or cough. This dance move, where you drop your head into the bent elbow with a slanted arm, while the other arm is straight out, perfectly puts your nose in a safe space to sneeze.

Rest, don’t exercise, when you’re sick.

The verdict: Yes and no, depends on you.

Most of us lie in bed when we’re sick, which can lead to poor mental health and feelings of being discouraged or disconnected. Depression can mimic cold symptoms, which can make your infection seem worse.

Doctor recommendation: Low activity can help make you feel better. Take a light walk outside with the sunlight on your face for 5-10 minutes. Do what makes you feel comfortable for common cold remedies and able to deal with your symptoms.

Still Can’t Beat Your Cold?

Generally, you don’t need to see a doctor for a cold. But if you’re experiencing a high fever and wheezing after a few days, schedule an appointment with a primary care doctor near you.

Medicines and Common Cold Remedies

You’re taking it easy at home with a combination of medicines to help with your symptoms. If you have a high fever, visit your primary care provider.  If you’re able to treat your cold at home, these common cold remedies might help.

Vicks VapoRub in your socks or on the bottoms of your feet cures coughs.

The verdict: Yes.

Vicks VapoRub can help with a cough, and the best place to use it is on your feet. The bottoms of your feet have bigger pores to absorb the ingredients and help with congestions and a cough. This option also has fewer side effects than cough medicine for children.

Modern-day common cold remedies using essential oils ease cold symptoms.

The verdict: Yes.

Similar to ingredients in Vicks VapoRub, essential oils can help with symptoms if you’re sick. Mentholated oils can help with a cough or congestion, lavender helps with sleep, and peppermint can help with headaches. Topical oils can cause skin irritation and no studies have been done with young children, so Werner recommends using a diffuser instead.

TLC to Boost Your Immune System

Some tender loving care is great for your physical and mental health as it boosts your immune system and live longer, better. Werner believes The Blue Zones communities have the right idea to longevity and happiness as they have found that connectedness is a key ingredient. Improve where you live, work and play by making it easier to get up and move, eat healthy, make new friends, find a reason for being and live longer, better.

Tags: primary care

Reply & View Comments Search Submit

Subscribe for Updates

Get stories & health tips every week