Global traditions in head/chest-cold remedies
October 22, 2015 5:03 PM   Subscribe

What are different cultures' home remedies for sore throats, coughs, and head colds? (Not only foods & drinks, but also things to inhale & otherwise comfort.)

I'm feeling miserable with a head-cold, my chest is slathered in Vicks, and all I want right now is kogl-mogl (which is what my dad would have advised) or ginger tea (my mother's go-to). That got me thinking: what are other cultures' home cures for upper respiratory infections?

(I did find a previous question on comfort foods for the sick around the world, but that's mostly focused on foods the upset-stomach kind of sick. I'm more interested in the coughing/runny-nose/exploding-head sort of sick.)
posted by Westringia F. to Health & Fitness (63 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Chicken Soup, in (Ashkenazi?) Jewish culture.

My Indian-British former roommate always stressed not eating or drinking dairy when you have a cold. I'm not sure if this is actually an Indian thing, or if it's some other brand of old wives' tale. But I heard it from him to an almost obsessive degree, and have never really heard anyone else say that.

It's driving me kind of crazy that I don't have any homegrown Cajun or Southern folk wisdom about what to eat when you have a cold.
posted by Sara C. at 5:12 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hot toddy
posted by pompomtom at 5:13 PM on October 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Sara C., Hong Kong doctors will advise the same thing about absolutely no dairy with coughing. Also, they'll advise only to drink hot water, never cold.
posted by frumiousb at 5:14 PM on October 22, 2015

Hot green onion drink, made with chopped green onions and miso (basically a little cup of soup, from Japan...maybe you could add ginger too). For a cough in Sweden, someone told me to take a teaspoon of olive oil instead of cough syrup.
posted by three_red_balloons at 5:15 PM on October 22, 2015

When I was a kid with a cold trying to sleep, I would sometimes get a little shot of whiskey, honey, and lemon juice (along the lines of a hot toddy, I guess, but I didn't enjoy it back then!). Midwestern US, mostly Irish ancestry, if you're looking for sources.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 5:21 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Jeweled accumulation snaked me out. I received the same bourbon-honey-lemon concoction as a child in the rural southern United States.

It was quite effective, mostly in that it was so disgusting that the mere threat of one was enough to make us suppress our own coughs. NOPE, NOT SICK, FEELIN' JUST FINE OVER HERE coff coff

As an adult, the hot toddy version (tea, lemon, honey, bourbon) is quite soothing.
posted by telepanda at 5:26 PM on October 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

A number of the Indian-descent folks at work love to suggest adding tumeric to boiling water and bathing your face in the steam to help with colds. I've never tried it personally.
posted by SquidLips at 5:27 PM on October 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

I was given hot whiskey toddies (Irish-American mom), which my mom would introduce by saying, "Have you finished all of your homework?". They always put me right to sleep!

My mom's other standby is to steam your face over a bowl of hot water with peppermint extract added.

My Japanese host-mom put me to bed with a liter of Pocari Sweat (an electrolyte drink), stacked quilts on top of me, and forbade me from using the A/C. (It was July, and hot as heck).
posted by chocotaco at 5:31 PM on October 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Mix Tang orange drink mix about 2:1 with instant iced tea powder. Stir into a mug of hot water. Yes, I know it sounds gross. It works*, I promise.

* to make you feel better, if only emotionally.
posted by ctmf at 5:32 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

My HK coworkers swear by Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa. My Tamil coworkers swear by pepper water. I'm personally a Vicks user.
posted by fiercekitten at 5:35 PM on October 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

posted by gemutlichkeit at 5:35 PM on October 22, 2015

I have two suggestions for you. The first is yujucha, from Korea.

It looks like marmalade but you make a hot drink out of it and it's delicious. And pretty cheap! Any good Korean grocer (and many generic "Asian" grocers) will keep it.

I've tried it for coughs and colds, and it seemed at least as effective as the usual hot lemon tea stuff. Certainly, when you're stuffed up and sick of sickly-sweet cough syrup or salty soup, this is a good alternative.

The other comes via a blog I read and they call it Miracle Tea. I've tried this also, and hated the taste, but it did seem to help with the crap-ton of mucus and phlegm. I added fresh chili and honey to one batch and liked it better. It seems to be based on a variety of cold remedy's from around Asia in general - they cite Vietnam, Thailand and China and have some other recipes and variations on that page.

Hope you feel better soon, but what a good chance to do research! :)
posted by ninazer0 at 5:42 PM on October 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Boiled potato, drain, and while still hot breathe in the steam. Head is covered by a towel at this point. Fun times. Russian Jews living in Ukraine at the time.
posted by pyro979 at 5:47 PM on October 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

In Ecuador you go out and cut a few leafy branches from the nearest eucalptyus tree. Throw them on the shower floor or hang them in the shower and shower. It puts eucalptus in the steam and clears your lungs. Mother nature's own Vics Vaporub.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:59 PM on October 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

My German mother-in-law puts Japanisches Heilpflanzenöl (Japanese Mint Oil) on her temples and over her lymph nodes when she has a cold.

It's a very strong mint/peppermint oil that works a lot like Vicks Vap-O-Rub, but also heats up the skin a bit more than Vicks will. It's insanely strong stuff (like 95% oil). Works for headaches too. You can also put some drops in hot water like chocotaco describes.
posted by JoeZydeco at 6:14 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Tequila with hot peppers infused. (Ok, maybe that's only me. But damned if it doesn't entirely clear your sinuses.)
posted by instamatic at 6:25 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Linden flower tea for coughs, colds, flu, and fever. It's a diaphoretic, so one drinks it while covered with comforters and blankets (the patient, not the tea). In the Czech and Slovak republic, you can buy it at the pharmacy, but many people gather it in June and July while the linden is in bloom.
posted by Atrahasis at 7:02 PM on October 22, 2015

In Quebec it's hot gros gin and lemon. Gros gin is genever, of which only one brand is sold in Quebec and it's so nasty I suspect most of it is sold as a cure for head colds.
posted by zadcat at 7:10 PM on October 22, 2015

Korean cold remedies include the aforementioned yujacha and Korean ginger tea (it's made with cinnamon, and the version one of my aunts made BURNED but you no longer minded your cold after she'd made sure you drank a bowlful while she watched you drink it). And then there's ssanghwacha (or ssanghwatang) - if you don't have easy access to a traditional Korean herbalist / doctor, then there's the bottled product sold in many Korean stores or supermarkets. I've seen those bottles in Chinese grocery stores, too.
posted by needled at 7:11 PM on October 22, 2015

I have also heard the no-dairy thing, and I'm from California and very much not Asian. My husband gargles turmeric, honey, and crushed garlic which is a thing his stepdad picked up in India I think.

I really really love Korean style ginger honey tea.

My mom got the whiskey treatment when she was sick and needed to take the SAT's.

My dad used to drink hot JellO liquid.
posted by jrobin276 at 7:12 PM on October 22, 2015

posted by Confess, Fletch at 7:22 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Johar Joshanda. And avoid cold water.
posted by tavegyl at 7:29 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hot toddy, yeah. I hated them as a kid and love them as an adult. My father's recipe (this was, mind you, the only sick-child-tending he could do) was roughly 1:1:1 for whiskey, honey, and hot water. He'd use a squeeze of lemon if we had any on hand. That plus a hot bath, as hot as you can get, still helps for me as an adult. I might have futzed with the ratios, especially w/r/t whiskey.

My grandfather swore by eating Vicks VapoRub. He'd rub it on his chest when he had a cold, then take about a tablespoon and eat it. Can't remember a cold that lasted more than a day for him.
posted by punchtothehead at 7:57 PM on October 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

My parents (Eastern Europeans) are all about gargling with warm salt water and/or hydrogen peroxide for a sore throat. My dad firmly believes that spicy Indian food cures all ailments. My mom prefers spicy ginger chai. Both believe dairy exacerbates colds.

Me? I just whine a lot and take more Nyquil than reasonable. (Culture: Valley Girl).
posted by Hermione Granger at 8:26 PM on October 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Gargling with warm salt water (as hot as you can stand it!) as well as gingerale, saltines, and Sesame Street, but I think that's less my Jewish Hungarian ancestry and more just default American. Also from the Hungarians: chicken soup, but just the soup, no starch, with like two little pieces of carrot floating around in there. Some chicken but only!!! if you finished the broth first.

I'm surprised more people haven't mentioned humidifiers, which are like a requirement in classic sick people scenes on tv in many different cultures. I know my grandma was always on about moist air being better for tender noses and mine definitely makes me feel like I'm taking better care of myself if I feel poorly than if I just lie in bed without a puff of mist around my head.
posted by Mizu at 8:43 PM on October 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Seconding punchtothehead's internal-Vick's anecdata: my American grandmother (of German-English descent) would rub Vick's on my dad's chest first, with a generous oral dose follow-up. She was also a fan of sliced potatoes placed on the soles of the feet (tied in place with cheesecloth or just plain linen) to draw out fevers. My Puerto Rican grandmother favored a bowl of chicken soup liberally doused with pepper, and a lavender or garlic infused facial steam (involving a hot pan of water on the table and the patient's head draped with a towel).
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:53 PM on October 22, 2015

My mom fed me honiger (honeger?) which is like a hot toddy with vinegar instead of alcohol. She believes in apple cider vinegar with the honey and hot water, so it's pretty vigorous tasting. I'm guessing she picked this up when she was an apple picker in Pennsylvania. (But if it's a family thing, could be German or British.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:07 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

A hot cup of red wine with a bit of sugar (stirred through it while heating). Eastern Europe. Also, bending over a pot of hot water with a towel draped over your head to steam out your lungs and sinuses. (Though a hot shower does the same thing and is less annoying to set up, imo.)

A lot of people in that region believe a draft of cold air is a risk to health and to be avoided at all costs (i.e. close all your windows and doors).
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:14 PM on October 22, 2015

My Swedish mom swears by the "onion sauna". You chop many onions and put them in a sink, then pour hot water on top. Use a wet towel to make a little tent around the sink with your head on the inside, and sit there and breathe in the steam for a couple of minutes. Then I guess you'll want to blow your nose, and soon you're supposed to start feeling better.
posted by Herr Zebrurka at 9:50 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

My parents, from Hong Kong, used to boil Coke with lemon slices.
posted by kiripin at 12:07 AM on October 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

My fiance made me Juk once when I was feeling unwell, which he picked up from his Chinese-Malaysian parent.

If I remember right he made it by cooking rice in chicken stock til it was so done it fell to bits and made a sort of porridge, then topping it with spring onions and some veg. It was so warming and comforting, as good as the chicken soup which was my default Ill Food.
posted by greenish at 2:25 AM on October 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Secondingjuk as a comfort/sick food.

For sore throats - salty/sour plum, lime (calamansi) amd honey drink. Something like this but served warm or hot.

I also knew a doctor (from HK I believe) who swore by warmed up Coke. Definitely no dairy, but that's not a huge part of the Asian diet anyway.
posted by pianissimo at 3:11 AM on October 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

From multiple Indian grannies:
1) Warm salt water gargle
2) Honey with powdered ginger. Thick mix, take licks as required
3) Lemon soaked ginger
4) Steam / towel heated on pan applied to chest and forehead
5) Turmeric in hot milk
6) Kaadha, my granny adds neem and balances the bitter with honey. Personally I prefer it bitter. Good luck finding the ingredients :P
posted by boredgargoyle at 4:22 AM on October 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Mustard plaster. This was a common remedy for colds and chest congestion in the Victorian period/early 20th century and my grandparents always broke it out if we had bronchitis or the croup. You do have to be careful that you don't make it too hot or burns can happen, although we never had that problem.
posted by katyggls at 4:43 AM on October 23, 2015

My grandmother (US Southeast) would make us sniff warm salt water if you had a head cold or stuffy nose, and would make you drink flat ginger ale. She was also a fan of Vicks Vapor Rub.

There were some older black ladies down her street, and I went to school with most of their kids/grandkids, all of whom were subjected to various root medicine cold cures. A lot of them involved some sort of poultice to pull out the sickness, or a drinkable herbal remedy, but they (the kids) were never told the specifics and knew better than to ask.

When I lived in Tulsa and happened to get a cold, all the Mexicans I worked with said to boil some water with sliced red onion and honey in it, and then drink that once it cooled a little. I will note that pretty much all of the Mexicans I worked with in Tulsa were originally from Zacatecas, so I don't know if the onion/honey cure was specific to that region or more of a national thing.
posted by ralan at 7:07 AM on October 23, 2015

This summer my mom gave me, and my son, and also my dad an old sore throat remedy she had just learned about: a big mug of half cider vinegar and half…water, I think, and a little honey…served piping hot.

It tasted like bile after too much candy.

My dad wasn't even amused at our distress, just quietly sympathetic (at the risk of her asking if he needed any more, I imagine). I nearly threw up at each gulp, and my eyes watered, and my son now considers me to have betrayed his trust by allowing my mom to give this stuff to him.

(We only give our kids a big spoonful of honey for a sore throat, and I expect that the honey was the only useful thing in that awful concoction.)

No idea what culture it came from, but I don't want anything to do with those people.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:08 AM on October 23, 2015

Also, after decades of travel in Japan and Korea, my dad brings us big boxes of Korean (Red?) Ginseng instant tea. We all learned to drink cups of it, hot, when we feel a cold coming on…though my wife & kids have yet to adopt this practice from me. :7)
posted by wenestvedt at 9:11 AM on October 23, 2015

My German parents always make me drink salvia tea for throat pain.
Japanese bf made me a cold remedy of green tea with umeboshi (pickled plum) inside, which made me throw up for the first time in ten years, but maybe that's just me.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 10:02 AM on October 23, 2015

Oh yay, someone else also got the Tang/tea treatment! I grew up in the rural, agricultural south, so Tang/tea, heated in a saucepan, was common. Also we'd simmer pans of water to inhale, kitchen towels draped over our heads to collect the vapor, having thrown in a few sage leaves from the garden.

I still do both of these!

My French host mom (a nurse) swore by sirop de sapin, a thick, sweet syrup with lots of aromatics in it.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:30 AM on October 23, 2015

Hot elderberry cordial - very thick and syrupy. Classic Danish winter cold remedy. Lots of vitamin C according to my mum.
posted by kariebookish at 12:50 PM on October 23, 2015

After a few years in Korea, I'm on the yuja cha train too.

I heard the no dairy thing from an aspiring opera singer, who said something about it affecting phlegm production, and thereby affecting the voice.

My father always encouraged me to inhale steam to help with chest congestion. I think that may just be a him thing, not a Newfoundland thing though.
posted by peppermind at 4:29 PM on October 23, 2015

Just doing steam inhalation with added tea tree oil and salt here; I'm in Italy but I'm pretty sure the oil is not really a tradition here. Where's the no-dairy rule definitely applies here, whenever there's mucus involved, and nausea.

I've also heard that workers at a German mustard plant practically never had colds. And if they did, they took mustard baths.
posted by progosk at 2:18 PM on October 24, 2015

My Native American mother-in-law gives me a mix of lemon, honey, cayenne and cream of tartar. Then she covers me with wool blankets until I sweat it out. I never tell her when I'm sick.
posted by kamikazegopher at 5:06 PM on October 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

My mom swears by hot and sour soup. Get yourself a big bowl of that when you feel a cold coming on, and you'll feel much better. Now it's the only thing I want to eat when I'm sick.
posted by sarcasticah at 12:24 PM on October 25, 2015

The crunchy granola types I know are super into "fire cider," which is basically all the spicy stuff you can find (horseradish, peppers, ginger, garlic, etc.) steeped in apple cider vinegar. I love it for colds -- I put small amount in a mug with an equal amount of honey and cover in boiling/warm water.
posted by linettasky at 3:27 PM on October 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

My mother (Pennsylvania German) rubs Vicks on her feet (!) and then puts on socks before getting in bed to draw to cold from the head/chest. She and my brother both swear by it, but I just think theyre nuts and cant stand the smell in general.
posted by sweetmarie at 6:45 PM on October 25, 2015

There is a scientific basis for the chicken soup cure.

I used to get a terrible flu every single year (not any more though, thank you fluvax!) and the first thing I would eat after emerging from my fevered, vomiting delirium was my mum or nana's chicken soup. After that I was well on the way to recovery.
posted by prettypretty at 8:43 PM on October 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

my dad used to make my mom hot toddies when she was sick that were hot tea, a bit of milk and sugar, rum, a stick of cinnamon, and a bit of butter that melted and floated on the top. This may be a german thing?

personally, my favorite thing for a sore throat is a cold beer. Makes it feel so much better.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 3:11 AM on October 26, 2015

Child of hippie parents in the Northeast US - I was always told to drape a towel over my head and breathe steam from a pot of boiling water with eucalyptus oil in it. It really does clear out your nose. Plus lots of hot tea with lemon and honey, and gargling with salt water (which I still can't do without gagging).
posted by Cygnet at 3:28 AM on October 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Pliny the Elder's suggestion for curing colds was to go and kiss a mouse.
posted by Ned G at 4:29 AM on October 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Vick's on the chest/throat when dealing with a cough, with a towel then wrapped around the throat and pinned in place overnight.

My mom did this all the for me as a kid (she's Dutch). Only other person I have seen do it is my wife; she also has a Dutch mother.
posted by nubs at 8:52 AM on October 26, 2015

Hunh: I thought steam-under-a-towel and limiting dairy were just common sense, not folk remedies.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:33 AM on October 26, 2015

My south-Indian mother-in-law's go-to sick food is Inji (Ginger) Curry.

You're used to using a little ginger as a flavouring in other foods, right? This curry uses ginger as the base. Like, literally cups of the stuff -- I've gotten a few odd looks buying giant roots of ginger at the grocery store. This recipe is similar, although Jaggery can be replaced with sugar and she uses more ginger (at least 2 cups) and no coconut.

You eat the curry with plain rice and plain yogurt, so pretty much all of the flavour comes from the curry. Works pretty well, although it really stands out for the more stomach-centric nauseous colds than the head/chest ones.

In fact I'm home sick today, and she's going to bring some over later :).
posted by Arandia at 1:20 PM on October 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

In the Southern Chinese/Cantonese tradition, Pei Pa Koa and boiled Coca Cola with ginger and lemon as mentioned above. Abstain from dairy and cold/iced water.
posted by peripathetic at 3:21 PM on October 26, 2015

My mother (Pennsylvania German) rubs Vicks on her feet (!) and then puts on socks before getting in bed to draw to cold from the head/chest.

OMG. I'm going to do this to keep my feet warm.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 3:26 PM on October 26, 2015

My Nana (Virginian of distant WASP/Scots-Irish Ancestry) spooned out tablespoons of hot toddy when I was sick as a child and then teacups full when I was an older teenger/young adult.

She also introduced me to the concept of trying to scare away a cold with a really spicy bowl of curry. This didn't always work, but I will forever crave VERY HOT Indian Food on the first day of a cold, thanks to her.
posted by thivaia at 10:28 PM on October 26, 2015

Chop an onion and place in a bowl, then add a layer of sugar. Let this sit for a couple minutes, and a syrup will form. Drink the syrup, which is an expectorant for chest congestion. (Poland)
posted by Little Dawn at 1:45 PM on October 27, 2015

For coughes, many Chinese swear by poached/steamed pear. You de-core a pear, put some crystal sugar in the hollow and cook it over low heat with or without a little bit of water.
posted by of strange foe at 2:14 PM on October 28, 2015

Our pediatrician has recommended windbreaker for our infant/toddler when he has a lot of congestion and his colds seem to be noticeably shorter and less mucus-filled than a lot of kids I know. It's suitable for adults as well but I haven't tried it. Many parents I've run into also suggest vicks on the feet with socks.

Someone also once told me that Olive Leaf Extract helps with duration. I always take it when I get sick not sure if it works or not.
posted by jasbet07 at 4:34 PM on October 28, 2015

I don't know if it is a Japanese or Icelandic or maybe her own thing, but my former boss (from Iceland, raised in Japan) used to give me a hot Coke, heated in the can! She would demand that I drink it quickly before it cooled, and then eat pickled ginger. Then she'd send me home before I made anyone else sick.
posted by domo at 2:06 PM on October 29, 2015

My Mexican wife's family will say to avoid getting a cold don't let your wet hair get in the sun - not sure how that works at the beach mind you.

Here in the Philippines, the cure for a cold seems to be a steaming bowl of arroz caldo - I had it once, it did seem to help!
posted by Admira at 1:33 AM on October 30, 2015

Not sure where this comes from--probably an American New Age corruption of other remedies. Chop up an onion, fresh ginger, and several cloves of garlic. In a pot on a stove, put in about a cup or two of water--not so much. Boil the water, turn off the heat, add the onion, garlic, and ginger. Cover and let steep for an hour. When cool, strain out all the solids and put the liquid in a plastic bottle. Add in a few tablespoons of lemon juice.

This is a potent drink. Take a shot of it every few hours. It's strong and tastes like hell and will not just give you the worst breath of your whole life, but your apartment/house will soon reek of it (hence the "home" remedy; not recommended for the workplace). But damn if it doesn't work to clear up that cold in a day or so.
posted by zardoz at 4:15 AM on October 30, 2015

The infamous technique of Gua sha or cạo gió in vietnamese, or coining in the west.
It's used mainly in Vietnam, pour vietnamese medicated oil on your back and then scrape it repeatedly with a coin.
It's very impressive to watch, but it doesn't hurt (well not much) and it worksv!

In Japan I was also told to sleep with a leek under my pillow.
posted by SageLeVoid at 8:59 AM on October 31, 2015

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