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Can spicy foods cure colds? A neuroscientist reveals the encouraging truth

Spicy food does nothing against the rhinovirus, but it can ease symptoms.

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For centuries, capsaicin — the natural compound responsible for the kick in spicy food — has been used as a health remedy. It’s been applied to wounds and used as anesthesia.

It’s appealing to think that a few glugs of hot sauce are all it takes to cure a cold — at least to those who enjoy chugging 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 could still be worth reaching for anyway.

Can spicy food cure a cold?

The quick answer is no. Colds are caused by a virus, and capsaicin can’t 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’s possible for spicy food to alleviate some cold symptoms, so read on.

Can spicy food relieve symptoms?

There’s 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 why spicy food induces sweating. When spicy food hits the tongue, it binds to TRPV1 receptors, which detect painfully hot things. Even though spicy food isn’t always hot in temperature, the brain still receives a signal that the body is in heat-induced pain. Sweating, tearing up, and dripping snot are all ways the body tries to expel whatever is making that signal go off.

But this might not be a guaranteed method for success. Congestion can often come from inflamed sinuses. Thus, even if mucus proliferates, the sinuses might not let it flow, and might cause the ingestion of spicy food to backfire. At least that’s what Genovese theorizes.

“I wonder if it might make it worse in those moments where you already are heavily congested, and so you just add fire to the fire,” Genovese tells Inverse.

Another way it might relieve symptoms is by, perhaps paradoxically, acting as a pain killer. Spicy food can pack a wallop, but it overwhelms the pain system temporarily. This can mean that while nothing will actually change, you will feel better for a while. A sore throat won’t feel scratchy and raw, for instance.

Menthol, which is in decongestants like Vick’s VapoRub, behaves similarly. Genovese says it doesn’t actually unclog or open sinuses, but it makes the sinuses more sensitive to airflow. This sensitivity gives the sensation of improved breathing because you’re more attuned to what little air is wafting through.

“Applying the Vicks VapoRub is not really alleviating the congestion in itself, but it's just helping us feeling 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 thinks that eating spicy food makes more sense.

If taken in a capsule, then capsaicin only releases in the gut. However, the anesthetizing effect would only come if capsaicin comes in contact with the tongue to create that burning sensation.

Hot soup or tea can mean comfort when you are sick or even when you’re healthy. They can feel like a warm hug; a little spice simply may feel like an even tighter embrace. Even if spice won’t cure your cold, eating a tasty, burning-hot dish can be enough to make you feel better.

CHECK, PLEASE is an Inverse series that uses biology, chemistry, and physics to debunk the biggest food myths and assumptions.

Now read this: Will milk and orange juice curdle and make you sick?

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