Czech remedies for an early cold season

Weathering the sniffles and keeping fit as temperatures drop

The rains of mid-October have brought unseasonably cold weather to the Czech Republic. A record low of -12C was recorded in the village of Kvilda in the Sumava Mountains last week and temperatures hovered around 0C in Prague a few weekday mornings. Even Siberian swans arrived an uncharacteristic 25 days early on their migratory move from Russia to the UK. It's the earliest arrival on record for the swans. Meteorologists say that Europe could be in for a long, cold winter. The quick shift from mild sunny days to freezing rainy ones has left many in the Czech Republic sniffling, coughing and wishing to curl up under the covers and call in sick. 


If you've caught a cold and need to boost your immunity, here's a few Czech remedies for colds and sniffles that don't require a doctor's prescription.


Teas & Honey

Drinking fruit or herbal tea is a morning ritual for many Czechs. Children are served fruit tea in preschool and often as a drink for school lunches. Ordinarily, many adult Czechs don't sweeten their fruit tea. Yet, when cold season hits, honey is considered one of the country’s first lines of natural defense. The Czech Republic has a growing honey consumption with over 500, 000 registered bee colonies. In recent years, beekeeping has become a trendy hobby, even in Prague's city center.

When adding honey to tea, Czech friends have taught me to first allow the tea to cool so that the anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of the honey are not destroyed. Local honey is considered good year-round protection against seasonal allergies. Ask at your neighborhood bio store for a local honey source.

Before the first heavy autumn frost, bushes in the meadows and fields in the Czech Republic are laden with bright red oval-shaped berries called rose hips. Czechs collect rose hips in the autumn and dry them for use in winter teas. Rose hip tea is a good source of vitamin C and can help stave off a winter cold. If you only have fresh rose hips, you can slice the berries in half, remove the seeds and bake them in the oven to dry. Add boiling water to dried rose hip berries to make a mild-flavored berry tea.

Another Czech winter-time tea specialty – homemade pečený čaj (baked fruit tea) uses a variety of fruits (apples, pears, currants, berries, etc.) cut into chunks. The fruits chunks are roasted and caramelized in the oven and combined with autumn spices like cinnamon, cardamom, vanilla or nutmeg. The fruit is sometimes soaked in rum or a touch of sugar is added. Stored in a glass jar, the baked fruit can be spooned by portions into a mug of boiling water for a chunky, flavorful tea. I first tasted homemade baked fruit tea on an autumn visit to my daughter's classmate’s family cottage. Since then, I've bought jars of it at farmer's markets and autumn festivals in Prague. The brand babiččiny pečené čaje can be found in larger supermarkets, although I prefer homemade varieties.

Fresh ginger tea is my own go-to when I have a sore throat. Several years ago, one of my Czech students served it to me in the autumn, and I now make it for my family. I peel and slice fresh ginger (sometimes crush it into smaller bits), let it steep in boiling water and then serve with lemon and honey.

My husband squeezes lemons and drinks them straight for a mega dose of Vitamin C. For the children, he adds hot water to make lemon tea.

Onions are used in Czech home remedies for curing a cough. The traditional Czech onion cough syrup remedy is to slice an onion into tiny pieces and cover it with honey. Leave the mixture to sit for several hours and then drink or spoon the liquid syrup that results. Although I've never found this remedy to cure my own children's coughs, the activity of creating the “potion” is interesting and takes the focus off being sick. You can also add hot water to the mixture to make an onion tea.


Comfort Soups

The age-old ritual of curing a cold with chicken soup is adhered to in the Czech Republic, although Czechs use a whole hen in their broth-based slepičí polévka. Consuming warm, easily-digestible soups keeps the body hydrated and aids healing. It is typical to use the entire carcass, bones and all, since it is believed the bones contain white blood cells which help fight infection. Vegetables and home-made noodles are added according to personal preference, but the main ingredient is the hen.

Česnečka (garlic soup) is another Czech cure-all, used to treatment everything from a hangover to a common cold. Making garlic soup is not difficult, although my children never think my soup is as tasty as my mother-in-law's. The base of the soup is loads of sliced or grated fresh garlic, potatoes, a carrot, a parsnip, celery root and fresh parsley. Some versions are topped with small pieces of ham, shredded cheese and toasted bread bits. Czech friends tell me that they eat fresh garlic raw to ward off a cold, but I stick with the soup.


Neck compresses

One of the strangest remedies I've heard for healing a sore throat is called a Priessnitz compress, a layered wrap of a cold, wet handkerchief placed on the neck, followed by a plastic bag and finished by placing a dry towel on top. The method was invented by a Czech from the Jeseniky Mountains who studied hydrotherapy. Its validity is questioned, even among Czechs, although the treatment has been recommended to me on various occasions when I mention having a sore throat.

Another neck compress is made by rubbing sádlo (pig fat) on a cheesecloth, followed by a bit of freshly grated nutmeg and another layer of cheesecloth. The compress is placed on the neck and throat, covered with a warm scarf and left for several hours. I can't vouch for this method either, though my neighbors claim it works.


Alcohol

An article about Czech home remedies wouldn't be complete without mentioning Czech alcohol. Czechs of my husband's grandfather's generation believe that taking a daily shot of Becherovka, an herbal liqueur many claim is better than cough syrup for killing bacteria, is the way to stay healthy. Since Becherovka originally came to Czechs as a medicinal digestive created by Josef Becher, a pharmacist in the early years of the 19th century, Radek's grandfather may have a point.

Slivovice is a plum brandy, known locally as the national drink of “Moravia,” which means the further south and east you go in the country, the more likely you'll be offered a shot of it. Like Becherovka, slivovice is believed to have medicinal qualities and is used to calm an upset stomach or sore throat. The burning sensation I've felt when downing a shot of slivovice leads me to believe that some germs are probably killed. However, whether or not it's a good remedy for a cold is up to you to decide.


Keep it all tucked in (Tights, undershirts, hats, slippers)

During cooler months, Czechs are a bit obsessive about keeping exposed skin covered, especially the neck or mid-section, particularly for woman and girls. Scarves and hats are autumn staples. Czechs wear scarves wrapped around their necks and sometimes leave them on indoors. I've been reprimanded by my husband's family for wearing a shirt untucked (inside) during cooler seasons. The rational being that my ovaries may catch a cold.

Small children of both genders are expected to have their shirts tucked in, so their internal organs don't get chilled. I remember once getting a stern reprimand from a Czech grandmother who wasted no time pointing out the exposed skin between my toddler daughter's sock line and the start of her pants, which was visible because I was holding her on my hip to cross the street. Even though the day was mild, she warned me against letting my daughter catch a cold.

This rationale changes abruptly in the summer when Czechs sunbath topless and Czech children frolic happily nude at local swimming pools.


Saunas & Salt Caves

Going to the sauna to boost the body's immunity is popular year-round, but especially during winter months. Visiting salt caves is another trendy, preventative treatment for asthma and respiratory infections. Both saunas and salt caves are found throughout the Czech Republic.


Visiting the Lékárna (pharmacy)

If you need to visit the pharmacy and must describe your ailments, remember that “throat” and “neck” are simultaneously krk in Czech. There are a range of over-the-counter natural cold products available here, like salt water nose drops, natural-antibiotic throat sprays or antiseptic lozenges, which the pharmacist can recommend based on your particular need.

Of course, the best way to get rid of a cold or cough is to let your body get plenty of rest and stay well-hydrated. Healing takes time and no natural or doctor-prescribed remedy will cure you immediately. None of these home remedies takes the place of a visit to your doctor if your cold symptoms don’t improve in a week’s time.

Once your body is on the mend, take a walk in the fresh air or get some outdoor exercise. Enjoy autumn while it's here; if the swans are right, this winter could be a long one.

If you've got some tips for Czech cold remedies that we've missed, please let us know.

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