Some people have attics, basements, or storage units; I have a medicine cabinet. My go-to space for immediate health needs is filled with old and incomprehensible bottles, vials, tubes, boxes, envelopes, and--if I dig deep enough--phone messages, photos, and a couple of Jefferson Airplane 45s. It would be pretty darn funny if it weren't for the fact that keeping expired medications and not making room for the things I need could endanger my health.
So what should I--and you--have on hand? The solutions are simpler than you might think. "You don't usually need big guns," says Karen Koffler, M.D., director of integrative medicine at Evanston Northwestern Healthcare in Evanston, Ill. "For day-to-day ailments, home remedies are often adequate." Koffler and other experts offer these suggestions for a medicine cabinet that would make a Boy Scout proud.
MUST-HAVES Emer'gen-C, sea salt, Neti Pot, echinacea (tincture or pills), Esberitox
To avoid days of lying in bed buried in Kleenex, invest in Emer'gen-C, a powdered energy boost that has 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C per single-serving packet. Mix a packet with a cup of water three times a day (your immune system works better when you're hydrated) at the first hint of a cold, Koffler advises.
To clear a stuffy nose, try a saline solution (1/2 teaspoon of sea salt in a cup of warm water). Add the solution to a spouted Neti Pot (netipot.org), tilt your head forward and to the side, pour the water into your upper nostril, and let it drain out through your lower nostril. Blow your nose and repeat on the opposite side. "The saline flushes out bacteria and viruses that inflame the membranes," Koffler explains. "If you get to the inflammation early, you can prevent it from progressing."
Many experts continue to recommend echinacea, despite its mixed reviews. (A 2005 study funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that 900 mg of echinacea per day didn't affect colds--critics say the dose was too low--while a 2005 Canadian investigation showed that the herb improved immune responses.) Montreal naturopathic doctor Stephanie Ogura, N.D., prescribes 3,000 mg of echinacea a day, the dose suggested by the World Health Organization and the Canadian Natural Health Products Directorate. "However, if you are not better within a week, consult a doctor," Ogura says. "And do not take echinacea for more than two or three weeks at a time." She advises checking with a health professional or a health-food store you trust to find a reputable manufacturer who uses a standardized formula.
Woodson Merrell, M.D., director of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Continuum Center for Health & Healing in New York, recommends Esberitox, a chewable mixed-herbal tablet that contains more modest amounts of echinacea. Take three tablets three times a day.
MUST-HAVES Echinacea (tincture or pills), aconite, honey, hydrogen peroxide, benzonatate
If your fever is less than 104 degrees and you have no other symptoms, don't worry about it, says Lisa Samet, N.D., a Montreal naturopath. "Bacteria and viruses die at high heat, so fever is your body's defense. When you take aspirin, you're disarming those defenses. Instead, you need to encourage your body's defenses by taking herbs like echinacea."