Spicy Food For Colds: Fact Or Fiction?

| Last Updated: September 5, 2019 |

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Many people believe that spicy foods such as those containing hot peppers are effective treatments for colds and flu. The thought behind this is that the compounds in chili peppers, black pepper, and other spicy foods can help your body overcome cold and flu symptoms thus easing your pain and discomfort. But do they really work? Let’s break down this common home remedy. 

Are spicy foods really the answer to the common cold?

Not really. The truth is that there is no completely effective cure for the cold While spicy foods may be able to provide a little temporary relief, their benefits can come at the cost of making the symptoms worse.

How are spicy foods supposed to treat colds?

The rationale behind the use of spicy foods as a cold remedy is that the capsaicin, piperine or the allyl isothiocyanate (found in wasabi and related foods) will help to loosen phlegm thus making it easier to breathe.

In addition, chili peppers are rich in vitamin C. One of the claims is that the vitamin C in some spicy foods can quell cold symptoms and shorten a cold’s duration.

Do spicy foods really work to ease cold symptoms?

Only temporarily. Capsaicin can have short-term decongestant effects that may be beneficial for a stuffy nose and other symptoms of head congestion. It may also act as an expectorant and make it easier to expel phlegm in the lungs. It is able to provide these benefits because your immune system sees it as an irritant. One of your immune system’s defenses, though, is to create more mucus. All of that extra mucus can actually worsen your congestion.

Capsaicin may provide some short-lived pain relief by deadening nerves. It does this by depleting the neurotransmitter that sends pain signals to the brain. It may also make your body produce more collagenase and prostaglandin in order to reduce pain and swelling. Once those effects wear off, the pain and inflammation associated with your cold will return.

Chili peppers are packed with vitamin C; in fact, some contain 400 percent of the amount found in oranges. However, research has shown the consumption of vitamin C to be of little benefit for treating colds.

It is important to note that there are better ways to treat a cold. Most importantly, you will need adequate rest along with a high fluid intake.

Are there any downsides to using spicy foods to treat colds?

Yes. In many cases, a cold or flu can come with gastrointestinal symptoms. A diet that includes spicy foods can aggravate these symptoms, which means that you would be better off with milder foods that are easier to digest.

Are some spicy foods more popular than others for fighting colds?

Yes, a few are much more popular than others for this home treatment:

  • Cayenne pepper is arguably the most widely suggested spicy ingredient for treating colds. It is a commonly used remedy in Ayurvedic medicine and is often used in mixtures that include honey and turmeric.
  • Horseradish is sometimes suggested as the allyl isothiocyanate it contains is known to have an irritant effect much like that of capsaicin. Research has shown that like capsaicin, it can actually worsen your congestion.
  • Black pepper is another spice that some claim is an effective cold and flu fighter. Various traditional cold remedies utilize black pepper. Some involve combining it with honey; others pair it with vodka. Like the other two spices above, its benefits are the result of it being an irritant. It is therefore not an effective long-term remedy.
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