Popular remedies abound, but nothing beats my secret weapon for easing a head cold

For two people who don't very often get sick, we have a lot of options on hand  for dealing with the common cold.

For two people who don’t very often get sick, we have a lot of options on hand for dealing with the common cold.

I am grateful on a regular basis that, cruising through our 60s, my husband, Douglas, and I are both in good health. I chalk it up to a combination of factors — good genes, good luck, good behavior and good access to medical care when we need it. Many people we know, older and younger, are not so fortunate.

But we do have our issues. Right now, I’m working through a pinched nerve or something in my lower back. And last weekend, Douglas was laid low with a head cold.

Now, a head cold is no big deal in the scheme of things. But this cold was miserable and virulent, and Douglas, uncharacteristically, stayed in bed with it. I kept my distance, and dosed us both with my bathroom-cabinet remedy, a nasty concoction of echinacea, goldenseal, grape root and other medicinal stuff in an alcohol base. A dropperful in a small glass of water, twice a day at the outset of your cold is reported to ramp up your immune system and help battle away the worst symptoms.

No reliable studies show that echinacea has any effect on a cold at all, but it tastes so foul I figure it must do some good.

Douglas gamely swallowed this remedy, despite some skepticism. He’s not an echinacea adherent, having more trust in a product called Airborne. Airborne contains 17 herbs and nutrients and was developed by a school teacher, according to the package it comes in, and that gives it some standing in Douglas’ worldview.

Originally touted as a cold preventative, Airborne toned down its claims following a class-action lawsuit in 2006 for false advertising. Now it calls itself a dietary supplement.

Most people know a cold just has to run its course. Still, some of us feel compelled to dose ourselves with something, whether it’s to ease the worst of the symptoms or in the hope of actually getting better sooner. Some sufferers turn to megadoses of Vitamin C. Others swear by the comforting warmth and head-clearing fumes of Vicks VapoRub massaged on the chest. Some stock up on NyQuil or other over-the-counter medications.

I trust the most basic approach of all — plenty of rest and plenty of fluids. Rest helps conserve energy and allows the immune system to do its thing. Fluids help keep congestion from packing into your sinuses and upper airways. And I’m a believer in deliberate deep-breathing, to keep the lungs moving and help cough up the crud. I try to get out into the cool, fresh air for a few minutes, too.

Ahh. Hot and sour soup, just what the doctor ordered. Order takeout from your neighborhood Chinese restaurant or -- better -- make your own.

Ahh. Hot-and-sour soup, just what the doctor ordered. Order takeout from your neighborhood Chinese restaurant or — better — make your own.

But, when a cold really has its hooks in me, I do have a secret weapon. It’s chicken soup. Chinese hot-and-sour soup, to be precise, made with chicken instead of the more traditional pork. Some studies have shown that, aside from just being warm and comforting, nutrients in chicken broth help tame inflammation and ease congestion. The hot-and-sour treatment adds mucus-cutting vinegar, onions, garlic, ginger and hot pepper to the mix. It’s salty, which is good for a sore throat. There’s no milk or cream in it to gum up your digestion. And it tastes like heaven in a bowl, especially if you make it yourself.

Making hot-and-sour soup is a little time-consuming, but it’s not hard. I brewed up a batch for Douglas last Saturday night when he was at a low point, and the next morning he was on the mend. Of course, he also took a decongestant at bedtime and slept well, and maybe the virus had just run its course anyway. But I choose to believe that the soup helped, and I know that the next time I’m sick with a cold, it’s hot-and-sour soup I’m going to want.

Spicy Hot-and-Sour Soup
Serves: 6
  • 6 c. chicken broth -- boxed is fine, but make your own for a stronger, fresher flavor
  • 1 whole large chicken breast, or two halves, boneless and skinless
  • 1 tsp. sesame oil
  • 1 or 2 large garlic cloves, minced fine
  • 1 med. onion, chopped
  • 1 c. sliced mushrooms -- shiitake are best but other kinds are fine, too
  • 1 large carrot, cut in small strips
  • 1 tsp. grated fresh ginger root, or more if you love it
  • ½ tsp. ground black pepper
  • ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes or ground cayenne
  • 2 Tbs. cornstarch
  • 2 Tbs. soy sauce
  • 5 Tbs. rice vinegar
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 scallions, white and green sections sliced into 2" strips
  • 4 oz. extra-firm tofu, cut into ½-inch cubes
  1. In a saucepan bring half the chicken stock to a gentle boil.
  2. Add the chicken breast and poach for about 12 minutes or until done.
  3. Remove the pan from the heat, save the broth, transfer the chicken to a cutting board and slice into narrow strips. Set sliced chicken aside.
  4. In a large pot, heat the sesame oil over medium heat.
  5. Add garlic and onion and cook until translucent, stirring occasionally.
  6. Add mushrooms and cook another 5 minutes until tender.
  7. Add all the chicken stock, carrots, ginger and red and black pepper.
  8. Bring to a boil and cook about 3 minutes, until carrots are tender.
  9. In a small bowl, whisk the cornstarch with the soy sauce and vinegar until smooth.
  10. Stir mixture into the soup, then cook and stir gently until the broth is clear, about 5 minutes.
  11. Add sliced chicken and cook another few minutes to heat the chicken through.
  12. Turn off the heat.
  13. Pour the beaten eggs slowly through a slotted spoon into the broth, to create fine shreds of cooked egg.
  14. Add tofu and scallions.
  15. Stir gently and serve. Put a bottle of hot sauce on the table for those who want even more heat.

There are thousands of recipes for hot-and-sour soup online, some more complicated than others, and some more authentic. I adapted this one from MarthaStewart.com and it was just right. 

Feel better soon!


Meg Haskell

About Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.