Thursday, January 20, 2011

Feed a cold, starve a fever, chicken soup and plenty of fluids

For centuries, people shared tips on how to treat illness at home. Doctors were scarce, and for a long time, they didn't even have any special training. If something worked, you remembered it and you told your friends.

Along came medical schools and research hospitals, and learned doctors and scientists began to scoff at "old wives' tales." How could eating chicken soup possibly help anyone get over a viral infection?!

How indeed?

A researcher at the University of Nebraska Medical Center asked himself that question and decided to find out. He took his wife's chicken soup to the lab, and after getting some interesting results, he and his team tested store-bought soups as well. The results were published in the journal Chest and publicized on CNN's website.

In a nutshell, when we get a viral infection like a cold, our body sends out white blood cells called neutrophils that eat up germs. All that neutrophil activity stimulates the release of mucus, and that causes us to have stuffy or runny noses and leads to coughing. Many of the ingredients in chicken soup, including the base broth, help slow down the neutrophils, thus reducing the amount of mucus produced.

Personally, I think the heat from the soup and the steam rising from the bowl both help to break up mucus and improve breathing. The researcher didn't study that factor, but he said it could play a part in soup's effectiveness to relieve cold symptoms.

Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever

A Duke University doctor tackled the old adage to "feed a cold, starve a fever." That advice was first put in print in the 16th century. The idea was that a cold was caused because you got too cold; eating and drinking would help your body generate heat. If you had a fever, you needed to cool down, so don't eat so much. The Duke experts admit that there is something to the old idea. For one thing, if you have a fever, you probably won't have much of an appetite. Turns out, not eating helps the immune system focus its energy on fighting the bug, although if you're hungry, don't starve yourself.

When you have a cold, which usually lasts a week, you need nutrients to keep up your strength and give your body the energy it needs to fight off the infection. Vegetables, fruit juice and warm broths are recommended.

Drink Plenty of Fluids

A recent New York Times report began with the suggestion that maybe the age-old advice to drink plenty of fluids when you're sick may not carry much water. Scientists at the University of Queensland, Australia, decided they wanted to review the facts about that common recommendation. They plowed through piles of old studies and medical journals and found out that while everyone seems to suggest drinking plenty of fluids, no one has really done any research on it.

Uh, guys? Maybe that's because we all know it works!

For one thing, we all know it's important to stay hydrated under normal circumstances. When you're congested, if you're taking medication to dry up your stuffy nose, it's going to dry out everything. In addition, meds or no meds, if you don't drink enough water, all that mucus is going to be really thick, and more difficult to expel. If you're properly hydrated, it's easier to blow your nose or cough the stuff up out of your lungs. Plus, what follows a stuffy nose? A sore throat. That's because of all the nasal drainage and coughing. Drinking plenty of water, hot tea, warm lemonade, and (ahem) chicken soup, will help keep your throat moist so it doesn't hurt as much.

Wash Your Hands

Okay, that's as much for before you get sick as after. Washing hands frequently (with soap and sing the alphabet song to make sure you wash long enough) will wash away the germs you pick up on door knobs, cash, shopping carts, etc. If you get sick, it'll help keep you from spreading those nasty germs to others. Good practice, all year long.

Stay well.

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