For centuries, capsaicin – the natural compound responsible for the kick in spicy foods – has been used as a health remedy. It has been applied to wounds and used as an anesthetic.
It’s appealing to think that’s all it takes to cure a cold—at least for those who like to chug hot sauce—but in reality, it’s more of a Band-Aid than a cure.
Federica Genovese, a neuroscientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, explains why hot pot isn’t the cure for a cold, but might still be worth reaching for.
Can spicy food cure a cold?
The quick answer is no. Colds are caused by a virus, and capsaicin cannot fight viruses. There is currently no cure for the common cold. If there ever is one, we’ll be the first to tell you about it. However, it is possible for spicy foods to relieve some cold symptoms, so read on.
Can spicy food relieve symptoms?
There is evidence that this is true, or at least possible. After all, spicy food can create a runny nose, a phenomenon known as gustatory rhinitis. It’s the same reason spicy foods cause sweating. When spicy food hits the tongue, it binds to TRPV1 receptors, which detect painfully hot things. Although spicy food is not always hot in temperature, the brain still receives a signal that the body has heat-induced pain. Sweating, tearing up and dripping snot are all ways the body tries to expel whatever is causing the signal to go off.
But this may not be a guaranteed method of success. Congestion can often come from inflamed sinuses. Although mucus does disperse, the sinuses may not allow it to flow, and eating spicy foods can backfire. At least that’s what Genovese theorizes.
“I wonder if it might make it worse in those moments where you’re already heavily overloaded, and so you’re just fueling the fire,” Genovese says Reverse.
Another way it can relieve symptoms is by, perhaps paradoxically, acting as a pain reliever. Spicy food can pack, but it temporarily overwhelms the pain system. This may mean that although nothing will actually change, you will feel better for a while. A sore throat, for example, will not feel scratchy and raw.
Menthol, which is in decongestants such as Vicks VapoRub, behaves similarly. Genovese says it doesn’t actually clog or open the sinuses, but it does make the sinuses more sensitive to airflow. This sensitivity gives a feeling of improved breathing because you are more attuned to the small amount of air flowing through.
“Using Vicks VapoRub doesn’t really relieve the congestion itself, but it just helps us feel the air going through the nose,” she says.
Is spicy food or a capsaicin capsule better?
Studies that have looked at how sick patients respond to capsaicin involve capsules containing a concentrated version of the compound. However, Genovese believes that it makes more sense to eat spicy food.
If taken in a capsule, capsaicin is only released in the gut. However, the numbing effect will only occur if the capsaicin comes into contact with the tongue to create the burning sensation.
Hot soup or tea can mean comfort when you are sick or even when you are well. They can feel like a warm hug; a little spice can simply feel like an even tighter embrace. While spices won’t cure a cold, eating a tasty, scorching hot dish can be enough to make you feel better.
THE BILL, PLEASE is a Reverse series that uses biology, chemistry and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.
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