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Listen to your mom and try chicken soup

Cold season is at its peak. Attend a concert, go to a movie, sit in church or listen to a speech and you are bound to hear people coughing and sneezing.

Ask grandmothers in Mexico, China, Russia or Nebraska what's best for a cold and the answer comes back: chicken soup! Science has confirmed that this universal remedy offers real therapeutic benefit.

The first documented chicken soup prescription was offered by the renowned physician Moses Maimonides in the late 1100s. But by the 20th century, this medieval advice seemed out of date and not worth serious consideration to the medical establishment. Grandmothers around the world disagreed, and medical science finally caught up to their wisdom several years ago.

A group of physicians at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami tested the power of chicken soup against hot water and plain cold water in its ability to improve the flow of mucus through nasal passages. As any grandmother could have predicted, chicken soup won hands down.

Dr. Irwin Ziment is a pulmonary specialist and chicken soup advocate. He favors a recipe featuring spices and lots of garlic in the broth. Hot spices such as chili peppers and curry can loosen mucus and produce an expectorant action. And garlic may have additional healing powers.

American physicians prescribed garlic for colds and coughs in the 1800s. More recently, scientists have discovered that garlic has antibacterial and antifungal properties. Whether it combats viruses is still unknown. But a reader of this column recently described his own experiment.

"I was coming down with a nasty cold and decided to try garlic. I put about 20 cloves in a pot of chicken soup. The next day I was fine. Of course, nobody could get near me, but I didn't care because I was feeling so much better."

We can't verify the success of this treatment, but eating that much garlic might help prevent the transmission of colds by keeping people away. There is still no scientific consensus on how people catch or spread colds, but proximity plays a role in all current theories.

Some researchers hold to the hand-contact theory, which suggests that handshakes, doorknobs, telephone receivers and other surfaces can transmit cold viruses from one sufferer to an unsuspecting victim. Just getting the virus on your hand isn't enough to infect you, though. You would have to touch eyes, nose or mouth to inoculate yourself. Hand washing should reduce infection if this theory were correct.

Another hypothesis is that the air carries droplets with viruses. Any time someone sneezes or coughs, viruses are spread throughout the environment. When you breathe them, you are exposed. This is why airplane travel might be particularly hazardous this time of year since air is often recirculated throughout the plane.

Despite a current commercial for a popular cold remedy, the one place you are least likely to catch a cold is on Mount Everest. There are very few people there to spread colds, and we doubt there are viruses lingering from the last expedition.

There is still no miracle cure for the common cold. But the next time you start to sniffle, search out a grandmother who makes dynamite chicken soup. Eat some hot chilis, vitamin C and a lot of garlic too and you'll either feel better or keep everyone else far enough away so they won't catch it.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert. Their newest book is Graedons' Best Medicine (Bantam Books).