Reality check: Can a hot toddy really help relieve cold symptoms?

For some, there's nothing like a hot toddy to help ease cold symptoms. But does it actually work?. Media for Medical/UIG via Getty Images

Most of us have a classic list of must-haves that we reserve for those times when we fall prey to a cold or flu. A warm blanket, flannel pyjamas, chicken soup and the sympathy of a loved one tend to comprise the bulk of the list, although an aromatic and boozy hot toddy might also be appealing.

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Over the years, experts have praised the hot toddy’s soothing benefits, crediting its ingredients — whiskey, hot water, honey and lemon — with healing powers ranging from relieving aches and pains to soothing a scratchy throat. But we’ve sought out our own experts to determine if the drink that dates back to 1700’s Scotland really does have medicinal powers, or if its effects are merely as nostalgic as grandma’s chicken soup.

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“Any hot beverage helps when you have a cold because the heat dilates the nasal passages allowing mucus to flow better,” says Dr. Ariel Fenster, a McGill University professor and founding member of the Office for Science & Society. “The alcohol that’s present in the drink will relax you and that’s an important factor.”

While it’s true that alcohol in large quantities has a dehydrating effect on the body, which is the exact opposite of what we need when we’re sick, the whiskey in a hot toddy is minimal (most recipes only call for two tablespoons) and is diluted with water, so its negative effects are essentially cancelled out.

What’s left are the soporific benefits of the booze. That’s also why it happens to be a standard ingredient in many over-the-counter cold medications like NyQuil and Robitussin.

Another otherwise negative trait associated with alcohol consumption, depression, also may have a counterintuitive effect.

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“We know that alcohol is a depressant that diminishes the activity of the brain,” says Dr. Sam Kacew, associate director in toxicology and professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa. “This diminished activity could help you stop thinking about how lousy you feel and help you fall asleep.”

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The honey in a hot toddy certainly helps soothe a sore throat, but Fenster says, don’t rely too much on its antixoidant claims.

“Honey has healing and antibacterial activity, but that only works if you apply it to a wound,” he says. “In that case, it can help heal and prevent bacteria from developing. But it doesn’t have the same effects when you ingest it.”

Meanwhile, the addition of lemon might be more the stuff of lore than anything else, especially considering that there’s scant evidence that vitamin C can prevent a cold.

Both experts concluded that a hot toddy is a soothing drink that can help temper some cold symptoms, but it doesn’t have any more healing powers than a bowl of soup or a steaming cup of tea.

“It’ll make you feel better because it’s comforting and it will help replace some fluids, but not much else,” Kacew says. “It’s not a cure.”

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