When I reluctantly succumbed to a cold this year, I tried to keep a stiff upper lip. Ignoring the symptoms, I headed to work. But within hours I was sneezing uncontrollably, dreading each swallow and searching for something to relieve the invisible corkscrew being driven into my forehead.
Forgoing several offers of aspirin and ibuprofen, I treated it with lavender oil in a simmer pot; some ma huang, licorice and eucalyptus tea; echinacea three times a day; vitamin C capsules, and a couple of homeopathic remedies.
I'm not the only one passing on traditional medicine for a more natural approach to health. A survey conducted last year by Prevention magazine concluded that about 60 million Americans spend an average of $54 each on herbal remedies every year.
Mindy Green of Herb Research Foundation traces the popularity of herbs to a trust in nature: "People will try them because they are things that grow in the ground, just like their broccoli or carrots."
When Colleen Dodt feels a cold coming on, she doesn't reach for aspirin, she reaches for her "Sniffy Bag." The small cloth bag, which she created to ease her infant daughter's congestion, contains equal parts crushed eucalyptus, peppermint, coltsfoot, comfrey and peppermint oil. The peppermint fragrance and the sharp essence of eucalyptus act as decongestants. "I've had great success with putting it on the dash of the car and turning the fan on high," she says. "If you have a commute, you might as well use it as healing time."
Dodt, author of two books on aromatherapy, believes so much in the power of the ages-old tradition that she incorporates it into her daily routine, from housecleaning to bathing.
When you catch a cold, Dodt suggests a bath spiked with a mix of five drops of eucalyptus and two drops each of peppermint and lavender oil to soothe aching muscles and open nasal passages. Be sure to add the essential oils after the tub is full, otherwise the vapors from the water will whisk the oils away. Follow this up with a jojoba oil-based eucalyptus massage.
Keep in mind that the natural oils can be harmful if applied directly to the skin, Dodt says, so be sure to dilute them with water or a carrier oil such as jojoba or sweet almond before using. Also, she adds, be sure the label reads "pure essential oil"; otherwise the substance may not work.
Most essential oils come from sources such as flowers and herbs. One popular flower extract is echinacea, an immune system stimulant with antibiotic properties that reduce mucus buildup.
A report from the Herb Research Foundation says echinacea is safe and can cure a cold -- if it's taken at the onset of symptoms.
Natural-products store owner Bonnie Healy favors an herbal dietary supplement called Perfect Health, which boasts the power of goldenseal, echinacea and spirulina.
What is the most popular product? "Echinacea," says Healy. "Echinacea, zinc and vitamin C." The products just keep coming. Parents can appease their kids with Dino-Echinacea, Flintstones-like supplements, and echinacea and cherry goldenseal suckers.
One alternative treatment you probably won't get children -- and some adults -- to sit still for is acupuncture.
While the ancient Chinese needle therapy was recently validated by the National Institutes of Health as an effective treatment for pain, it can also alleviate annoying congestion and sneezing.
Acupuncturist Stefan Brink says patients often come to him in search of relief from their cold or flu symptoms. "If it's caught in the beginning stages, you can cure it overnight," says Brink. "The recovery rate sets in immediately."
The fine acupuncture needles are stuck into the body at precise points, "releasing" clogged energy that is vital in irrigating and cleansing tissues (and releasing that clogged nose).
Brink also prescribes a diet void of "sticky" foods, such as processed flour, sugar and -- surprisingly-- fruit juice. Within a matter of hours, he says, patients breathe freely again.
Does it hurt?
The needles are very fine," promises Brink. "There is no particular sensation upon entry. You may feel a dull ache, numbness or a slight electrical charge, but it does not hurt."
Well, the procedure may have a 2,000-year success record of curing aches and congestion, but for now, I think I'll stick to painless inhalation.
Eucalyptus oil, anyone?