Brow Beat

You’re Doing It Wrong: Cold Remedies

Tissues are crucial.

Photo by Kimberly-Clark Corp. via Getty Images

This week, I was planning to develop a recipe for zabaglione for the latest installment of You’re Doing It Wrong, the Slate recipe series. However, for the last several days I’ve been suffering from the most severe and stubborn cold of my adult life. The last thing you want to do when you have a cold is to whip up a custard sauce that vaguely resembles the mucus you’ve been trying to expel from your head, so zabaglione will have to wait for another day. This week, I am offering a recipe for surviving the common cold. (I am not a doctor; please do not mistake the following opinions for legitimate medical advice.)

The biggest mistake people make when they’re suffering from a cold is to take decongestants, like Sudafed. I speak from experience: I began my week of congestion by taking 120 milligrams of pseudoephedrine twice a day. But pseudoephedrine is a false friend: It can temporarily make it easier to breathe, but it doesn’t shorten the duration of your cold and causes “an increase in the thickness of lung secretions” in the long run. Instead of trying to temporarily suppress congestion, I discovered it was better to help the mucus move along by drinking lots of water and taking an expectorant like Mucinex, which, to use an optimistic euphemism, “helps make your cough more productive.”

Better than any over-the-counter medicine is the neti pot, that little teapot-resembling receptacle used for nasal irrigation. The ritual of using a neti pot is a bit of a pain: You have to boil water to kill off brain-eating amoebae, than you have to wait for the water to cool to a comfortable temperature. Finally, you mix it with salt—about ½ teaspoon per cup of water—and use the neti pot to pour it through your nostrils. (Be sure to use plain sea salt or kosher salt, not iodized salt.) If you’re not used to pouring liquids into one nostril and watching them trickle out the other, using a neti pot will feel weird at first. Just keep your mouth open and tilt your head around slowly until the water begins to flow steadily.

Finally, when you have a cold it’s important to avail yourself of other people’s cooking. Seamless is a godsend when you have a cold; do not feel ashamed about ordering delivery for most meals until your symptoms subside. (Or, if you have a particularly compassionate housemate, perhaps you can guilt him or her into cooking for you.) Remember that spicy food can temporarily relieve your sinuses of their mucosal burden: I particularly recommend pho, which provides much-needed micronutrients, calories, and fluids, doctored with lots of chili sauce.

Anything else you do for a cold will be more of a placebo than a functional treatment, but do whatever makes you feel good, whether that’s wallowing in your misery or distracting yourself with work. I’ve had good results with a relatively even mix of wallowing and working. If you do go to the office, be considerate of your coworkers: Shut your office door or retreat to someplace out of other people’s earshot before you blow your nose and cough. If you go the wallowing route, don’t forget to brush your teeth, shower, and put on a bra if you normally wear one—these simple steps really will make you feel better.

Previously in You’re Doing It Wrong:
Butternut Squash Soup

Hot Toddy
White Bean Soup