Curing the common cold – my placebo of choice

Back at the start of  November, when it was nice and warm, the Indy had this little piece on curing the common cold. All it says is that antibodies – the little soldiers your body makes to kill intruders – can actually get into your cells and KILL viruses inside them. This is sort of important for two reasons: reason the first, viruses have to get inside cells to reproduce. They are so lazy, they can’t reproduce on their own. They use the bits of the cell that make proteins to make other viruses. What is a virus made of? It’s just a strip of DNA and some slabs of protein. Reason the second, this is the first time that it has been demonstrated that viruses in a cell can be attacked by the immune system. So this can be exploited by medicines and all viral disease cured.

This is all well and good, Science. But it does naff-all for the cold my immune system is currently dealing with. Currently, there is no cure available for the cold or, to use it’s special name (the one its parents use when it’s naughty) acute viral rhinopharyngitis. The official NHS advice is drink plenty of fluid, rest (however much you feel you need), eat healthily, blah blah blah.

Painkillers like paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen to help with headache and general pain. Aspirin and ibuprofen can suppress fever, ibuprofen in particular seems to be more effective than paracetamol in reducing a fever. There is, of course, the question of whether suppressing a fever is actually helpful – some research has suggested that a fever can be beneficial in fighting infection.

Other things that might make life more comfortable if you have a blocked nose are decongestants. These can either in the form of tablets or nasal spray. Tablets usually contain either phenylephrine or, rarely now,  psuedoephedrine – both act on adrenaline receptors to increase blood pressure. Pseudoephedrine especially can have quite nasty stimulant-like effects including heart palpatations and making you feel horrible and shaky. Decongestants in nasal spray form are useful as they go straight to the nose, and so have a lower risk of side effects. Nasal sprays shouldn’t be used for more than 5-7 days as they can lead to rebound nasal congestion.

There are a load of non-medical methods for attempting to relieve the symptoms of a cold. Steam inhalation to relieve blocked nose and sinuses. Saline nasal drops have been recommended to me by an ear nose and throat surgeon friend of mine – though generally these are used to treat children.

And thus we’ve wondered into the realm of old wives… Pretty anything strong and stinky in aroma has been employed to clear one’s passages – my room currently stinks of menthol. And there does appear to be a scientific basis to this. Some studies have shown that menthol can ease coughing. The cooling sensation of menthol eases throat pain. So, overall that’s a yes for menthol. Other pungent foodstuffs such as ginger and probably open up the nasal passages. Probably. Who knows. Oh wait, it looks like it might be anti-inflammatory. Can’t say I’ve ever noticed (and I’ve drunk a lot of ginger tea, though obviously not in a double-blind placebo-controlled trial, so what do I know).

Garlic has been alleged to have antiviral and antimicrobial properties, although findings have so far been inconclusive. Presumably frequent consumers of this herb don’t ever come into close enough acquaintance with anyone to ever catch a cold… (I’ll have to tell you some time about my Dad and his assertion that his diet rich in raw onions means he never gets ill).

The data in support of vitamin C are intriguing, a study published by the Cochrane Review – which compares many studies that have been conducted on a topic, combines them and attempts to draw conclusions – suggests that taking vitamin C doesn’t prevent one catching a cold but that

“it could be justified in persons exposed to brief periods of severe physical exercise and/or cold environments.”

and that it could shorten duration (though not by a lot). But that’s only if you’re already taking vitamin C. Worth gambling on? Well…. 8 grams (and that’s a LOT) per day at the onset of a cold might help. Maybe.

Echinacea is very fashionable with herbal med enthusiasts. Is there any evidence of it having any effect on the common cold? Well, possibly. A few meta-analyses suggest that it can make it less likely you get a cold, and if you have a cold, it may shorten the duration of the cold. Not all results are consistent there might be something there. But then you have to deal with what bit of the echinacea is in my tea? How much echinacea? Problems with herbal medicines are that they are not exactly regulated…

There is even evidence to suggest the old-wives standby, chicken soup, has cold curing potential. It’s mostly speculation, but some tests suggest that chicken soup might be anti-inflammatory. In a dish. In a lab. No idea what it does in the body. But it does taste good and you do need to keep your strength up.

As for me, I shall stick with my constant tea-drinking (not all of it caffeinated), occasional pain-killers, the most disgusting sweets known to mankind, and saline nasal spray – which should all shift this cold by Christmas. But mostly I shall be using my immune system, which fights like a tiger when cornered. I shouldn’t whine, it’s been over a year since my last cold.

Disclaimer – I am not a medical doctor, I am merely documenting my own cold self-treatment on myself. Consult your GP if you are taking any medicines or are allergic to any medicines, pregnant,  if your symptoms get worse, last longer than 14 days, you start coughing up thick blood-stained mucous. Or blood. That’s bad. No, really, go now. Or call NHS direct.


As an addition to the echinacea findings, I’d like to add this published in the Annals of Internal Medicine this morning (21st December 2010). They state that there’s no statistically significant effect of echinacea on severity or duration of the common cold.

  1. #1 by mallorca reisen on January 5, 2011 - 23:34

    Looks like you are an expert in this field, you got some great points there, but you’ll want to add a facebook button to your blog. I just bookmarked this article, although I had to complete it manually. Simply my $.02 🙂

    – Daniel

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