4 Anti-Cold Cocktails That Work: From Ancient China to German Alcoholics and Modern Labs


The 2,000-year old cocktail: it tastes as bad as it looks… but it works.

My back hurts. So does my throat, and I feel like a sumo wrestler is sitting on my head trying to pop my eyes out.

Alas, the common cold has got me. Fortunately, I expect to be rid of it in 48-72 hours.

Like millions this time of year, I have the bug. But, thanks to Chinese and German friends and several helpful doctors, I’ve found a few effective treatments — the closest to cures I’ve experimented with — that can get you back on your feet faster. I suggest you test them in stages, from oldest to newest, as the side-effects tend to increase as we include modern drugs.

The Chinese Cure for the Common Cold–Simple and Direct

Despite some craziness like shark-fin soup and bear gallbladders, the Chinese have had a long time to experiment with the common cold.

In Beijing, I’d doubted the traditional Chinese approach to reducing fevers (bundle you up in winter clothing and force you to drink near-boiling tea or water until you sweat profusely), which ended up working like a charm, so I’ve been willing to test ideas that could have some clinical basis.

The ladies–my five surrogate mothers–at my neighborhood Chinese restaurant suggested the following fast-acting cold remedy (end product pictured in the first photo from this post), which — for me — cuts symptoms like sore throat and sinus pain by at least 50% over 24 hours.

Step 1: Get fresh ginger and the orange rind (peel) from one orange, preferably organic or otherwise not treated with pesticides. Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods will do. The Epsom salts will be explained and is not part of the recipe.


Step 2: Cut the ginger into small pieces and mash them down with the side of a large kitchen knife.


Step 3: Bring water to a low boil (medium setting on my electric stovetop) in a small pot and insert ginger pieces. Wait 20 minutes. Note: to help relieve the muscular pains that often come with a cold or flu, I’ll run a hot bath during this 20 minutes, put in the entire box of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate), then soak for 10 minutes before coming back to the kitchen for step 4.

Step 4: Add the orange peel sections to the boiling water and wait an additional 10 minutes.

Step 5: Strain and serve. Be forewarned that it has a strong taste and a few dabs of organic honey will help those with girly-man stomachs (I’ll plead girly-man on this one). The liquid/tea/soup stores well in the refrigerator but tastes 10x worse cold.

The German Solution–Alcohol, Of Course!

The German solution I’ve been offered is easier to describe:

1. Get a deep-tissue massage
2. Chamomile Tea
3. Spiced Rum
4. Bed

I suspect the spiced rum could have an effect less from the alcohol and more from the cinnamon typically used to make it spicy. Though generally thought of as being viral, the common cold is often misdiagnosed or accompanied by other types of bacteria and infection.

Cinnamon has been shown to inhibit E. Coli and increase insulin sensitivity, among other things, which is why I take it supplementally prior to meals if I’m cycling off of alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) as an insulin mimicker.

I’ll discuss ALA at greater length another time, but here is a preview from wikipedia: “Lipoic acid has been shown in cell culture experiments to increase cellular uptake of glucose by recruiting the glucose transporter GLUT4 to the cell membrane, suggesting its use in diabetes.”

Modern Non-Prescription Options

Though it’s true that “supplement,” “drug,” and “food” are largely legal distinctions and not biochemical ones, getting prescriptions is both time-consuming and expensive. For shortening the duration of the common cold, I use Zicam oral mist (nasal delivery can damage your sense of smell) every 3-4 hours, along with the following:

Garlic extract (2 capsules, 3x/daily), probiotic acidophilus cultures (one capsule per meal), 3mg melatonin prior to bed, 8-10 grams of vitamin C in 1g divided doses.

I don’t use echinacea because I’ve found the supporting research inconsistent and it upsets my stomach. I’m aware that some researchers dispute Linus Pauling’s conclusions about vitamin C, but I believe it’s because of insufficient dosing and spacing, as it is water soluble and can have a half-life of just 30-60 minutes.

From the non-ingestible standpoint, having suffered from sinus infections since childhood, I’m a proponent of sinus irrigation, which entails driving distilled water mixed with salt and baking soda in one nostril and out the other.

I’ll do this each morning and evening as soon as symptoms appear, and it all but eliminates the intra-cranial pressure and black-eye look so typical of sinus inflammation:

The NeilMed sinus rinse kit.

The Last Resort–Heavy Prescription Artillery

The common cold, as mentioned earlier, is generally thought of as a viral infection and attributed to any number of rhinoviruses and friends: “Common colds are most often caused by infection by one of the more than 100 serotypes of rhinovirus, a type of picornavirus. Other viruses causing colds are coronavirus, human parainfluenza viruses, human respiratory syncytial virus, adenoviruses, enteroviruses, or metapneumovirus. Due to the many different types of viruses, it is not possible to gain complete immunity to the common cold.”

Diverse as the causes might be, there is one combination of drugs–my personal holy trinity–that seems to kill off most variations of cold-related upper-respiratory issues if all else fails:


From left to right: the “Zmax” or azithromycin, an antibiotic (don’t use this and acidophilus at the same time); Flonase or generic fluticasone propionate, an anti-inflammatory nasal stray with little systemic absorption of the glucocorticoids; and Pseudovent, a decongestant and expectorant not unlike Primatene tablets.

These drugs all have side-effects and should not be used without medical supervision. If your HMO or doctor seems clueless, however, feel free to make suggestions.  Please note also that I use antibiotics only when warranted, as in the case of severe and recurring sinusitis with related causes.  Uninformed overuse of antibiotics can do more damage than anabolic steroids, so caveat emptor.


The common cold has been with us for millenia and will likely be with us for millenia to come. Is doesn’t mean you have to lay down and take it. Test some of these options, with the guidance of a doctor when needed, and perhaps we can save one more casualty from flu and cold season.


Odds and Ends: Fixed Gibberish

I had the strange marks and nonsense fixed on the popular “Top 5 Reasons to Be a Jack of All Trades” post. It’s now readable again :)

Posted on: March 18, 2008.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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191 comments on “4 Anti-Cold Cocktails That Work: From Ancient China to German Alcoholics and Modern Labs

  1. Tim,

    I think you meant to type “ginger” the first few times you wrote “garlic”. Otherwise, useful ideas – and garlic can play its part, anyway.

    Another inexpensive, low-tech, harmless trick is the “cold sock treatment”. I don’t have time to describe it now, but a little google search will supply the description, I’m sure.


  2. Speaking of non-prescriptive drug options, have you ever heard of Cold-FX? http://www.cold-fx.ca/ It is popular here in Canada; hockey teams endorse it. It’s supposedly a “natural” cure because, according to their FAQ, it “is a highly purified ChemBioPrint product derived from the roots of North American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius).”

    I’ve used it before, but I don’t know if it really shortened my cold length but it didn’t seem to have gone on longer than a normal one.


  3. Hi there! Really good topic… :)

    Personally, I find that nothing beats herbal tea with honey… Don’t know how well the actual effects are documented, but at least it feels good in the throat – and the soul!

    Of course, the best is to prevent the cold.. You can eat lots of fruit and vegetables. But my favourite is to, in the most stubborn way, persuade yourself that you never get sick and tell everybody. That, actually, works wonders…

    Tim, get better!



  4. Since my wife and I discovered the following a few years ago, her colds have been limited to 24-48 hours max and I have been able to prevent colds completely! THIS WORKS: (by the way, I do not sell this stuff, I buy it … religiously!) Therapeutic Grade Essential Oils, specifically Oil of Oregano. A few drops taken (mixed in orange juice or milk) as soon as you feel that slight tickle in your throat (or whatever your red flag indicator of the onset of a cold is), will either reverse the onset altogether, (as in my own case and several of my family/friends) or at least mitigate the severity and duration of the cold. (The brand we use is from Young Living as they have the best quality that we’ve been able to find on the planet. Expensive, but worth every red cent.)


  5. I am a cayenne pepper fan. It seems as though the Native Americans of the southwest used the stuff on everything and it helped them fight off the common cold that was killing the other NAs. I put in/on every meal. Everyone at work has been cold/flu sick twice now and I have not gotten hit once. It also does wonders for a sore throat, google it.


  6. The garlic typo leaves me an opening to add the vicious folk remedy I picked up from friends. Exactly the same deal with the ginger, but we don’t use the orange peel (sounds good though). We squeeze the juice of half a lemon and chop up a couple of cloves of garlic.

    When the ginger is steeped enough, put the garlic in the bottom of a mug, pour the ginger tea over the top, then add the lemon juice. We usually add some natural honey – I could say it’s for the antibiotic properties, but I think it’s mostly to reduce it from completely undrinkable to merely hideous :)

    Then you slug it down, get a teaspoon and finish all the garlic which has settled to the bottom of the mug.

    If I catch a cold in the first few hours, this seems to do the trick. Possibly by simply scaring the living daylights out of any micro-organism that isn’t physically attached to me…


  7. Excellent tip!. I would emphasize though the importance of proper hydration. A technique I was taught about a year ago is to drink six glasses of water (it’s difficult when you are starting!) first thing in the morning. Then wait about 45 minutes or an hour (while you are getting ready) to eat or drink anything else. Then continue drinking clean pure water the rest of the day as normal. This technique stimulates all the internal organs and brings them rapidly to prime condition. You will feel the difference almost immediately.

    Art Gonzalez
    Check my Squidoo Lens at: Quantum Knights


  8. Hey Tim,
    Have you experimented with Airborne? I was advised by a friend to try it when I caught the sniffles coming back from Copenhagen in November. Seemed to kick the cold, but I dont know much about it other than the label info… LOTS of vitamins!



  9. You’re not seriously recommending azithromycin for the common cold, are you? Sure, if you have pneumonia, that’s the way to go, but given how much overprescription of antibiotics has already created new kinds of threats from resistant strains, this seems to be a really terrible piece of advice. If a doctor agrees to write you a script for this on your request, find a doctor who knows what she’s doing.


  10. Tim,

    What major magazine are you referring to. I’d love to give it a read. I think there is a huge market for those willing to work less for less pay.



  11. The Chinese cure, despite the typo seems best to me, but what do you do for the corresponding headache? Anything more than the above?


  12. Mr. Ferriss,

    I’m very impressed by your accomplishments, and you are no doubt an intelligent person. But are you SERIOUSLY recommending antibiotics for a cold?!?!

    Unless you actually have an accompanying inflammation (such as otitis media or a staph/strep infection), you are doing nothing to combat your symptoms (since colds are viral infections, not bacterial).

    Worse, you are basically encouraging further bacterial resistance to already-weak antibiotics. There are two causes of anti-biotic resistant bacterial infections: 1) People failing to finish the prescribed course of antibiotics and stopping administration just as soon as they “feel better” and 2) patronizing doctors who throw antibiotics at whiny cold-sufferers who know that they have nothing more than a placebo effect.

    In the short term, it’s probably harmless, but cumulatively, this practice is a serious threat to public health. Shame on you, Mr. Ferriss.

    The best cure for a cold? Not getting one. Practice preemptive measures such aimed at sanitation habits instead.


    • These drugs all have side-effects and should not be used without medical supervision. If your HMO or doctor seems clueless, however, feel free to make suggestions. Please note also that I use antibiotics only when warranted, as in the case of severe and recurring sinusitis with related causes

      ****He said only when warranted…maybe you should have read it a little more. *****


      • It is absolutely never warranted to take an antibiotic for a cold or flu. A cold is ALWAYS a virus. Do not take antibiotics for a cold.


  13. I’m sure tons of other people will also post their own personal remedies, but it happens to be that my own personal remedies coincide nicely with what you (and other commenters) have stated:

    1) Force yourself to drink 1/2 a gallon of OJ every day you are sick. This gives you plenty of natural Vitamin C and plenty of fluids, both of which you need badly when you’re sick.

    2) Wrap yourself in blankets and sleep a fever out. It’s hard to sleep and you’ll be 1/2 awake most of the time, but it works.

    Those 2 steps combined have allowed me to recover in 24-48 hours consistently for 8+ years (ever since I tried it in college). The large quantity of OJ isn’t that nice in that you’re taking in tons of sugar, but then again, your appetite probably sucks from being sick and well… your first priority should be to be in normal health in the first place.


  14. Nasal irrigation is also well worth practicing when you are in good health. Since colds are rhinovirii, and attach themselves in the upper respiratory tract (read: nose) of a new host, you would do well to keep your nasal passages clear as much as possible.

    If you can tolerate the “water up the nose” sensation, cup some water in your hands and draw it up through one nostril, far enough so that you can feel it go past your nostrils and up into your nasal cavity. Tilt your head up to allow for it to irrigate the cavity, then blow it out. Repeat with your other nostril.

    Making the water saline helps with the unpleasant “water up the nose” sensation. An isotonic saline balance will prevent that reaction.

    Look for “neti pots” at your local health food store or online; they’re an Ayurvedic tool to irrigate your nasal passages, and make the process I suggested above a little more dignified.

    Get in the habit of doing this every time you go to the bathroom and wash your hands. I’m a third year law student with a newborn and haven’t been able to concentrate on physical fitness for almost three years, but I’ve been cold-free for well over a year now, and (although this is only anecdotal evidence), I’m pretty sure it’s all because of “keeping my nose clean”!