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Health, Science

Can You Cure the Common Cold?

It's that time of year again, when we all start to get the sniffles

Curing the common cold sparked a debate in the office at work yesterday: It was reported in the news that the “cure for the common cold” had been found.  It sounds exciting but like much science reporting in the media: it’s fantastically over-exaggerated. The ‘ground-breaking’ research gives interesting insights into how our immune system works (the intricacies of will go above the understanding of most). A  cure will be years, probably decades away.

So, while we wait for science to discover a cure, we must do our best to cope with home remedies and shop-bought medicines. Everyone in the office had a personal favourate for treating colds: honey and lemon, rubbing goose fat on the chest, or a bit of ‘hot toddy’…!

What do you do when you start to feel unwell?

Today’s blog is looks at a range of cold treatments: some of which are downright weird. There are some surprising truths about what works and what doesn’t

 

Eating Oranges to Cure the Common Cold

For years we have been led to believe that shovelling oranges and satsumas down us at the first hint of a cold in the belief that it will cure us.

Oranges are a great natural source of vitamin C, but do they help?

I hate to break it to you but unless you have an orange fetish you’re probably wasting your time. You need to eat a whopping 22 oranges in one sitting to have any hope of stopping an infection! Research performed over many years has shown that the Vitamin C in oranges has only a tiny effect on killing the common-cold virus. Only if you take a ‘mega-dose’ of Vitamin C (that’s 1 gram or more) will you reduces how long you are ill for  about (gasp) half a day. Hardly worth bothering!

Time to buy a bigger fruit bowl perhaps? 

 Modern Medicines: do they really work?

Lemsip, Benolyn, Soothers, Cough Linctus; there's plenty to choose from but how good are they?

The ‘common cold’ is caused by a virus infection (rhinovirus) and none of the lotions or potions you can get in the shops kill viruses. Because it’s a virus, antibiotics from your doctor won’t help either. Most medicines you can buy are a cocktail of paracetamol, sugar, caffeine and ‘decongestants‘. They reduce the aches and pains but won’t make the cold go away.

Always read the label: if you want a good night’s sleep watch out for anything that contains caffeine (e.g. Lemsip) before you go to bed…

Do traditional cold remedies work?

Honey and Lemon?

A nice sweet cup of honey and lemon might not sound like much. Health food shops are doing a roaring trade out of a new fad from New Zealand: “Manuka Honey”. This up-market honey actually has anti-bacterial powers and can help fight infection. Sounds like a good idea to mix some in with your lemon drink? Unfortunately, the common cold is caused by a virus (not bacteria) and so may help all sorts of other infections but honey won’t cure a cold. Sigh!

Honey does taste good and the ‘sugar-hit’ will keep energy levels topped up though!

Can Alcohol Cure the common cold?
 
I once tried this at University: suffering with ‘man flu’ I downed a shot of whiskey before bed. I’d been told it was an effective cure-all. The next morning I awoke feeling worse than ever. I wasn’t impressed by this age-old ‘remedy’.
 

A 'hot toddy' is a traditional remedy of whiskey mixed with hot water, lemon and spices

Alcohol is often seen as bad for health: Too much alcohol damages many of your internal organs (especially the liver) and limits your body in fighting infections. My ‘whiskey experience’ certainly means that I avoid alcohol if I feel ‘under the weather’.  But controversially, scientific findings have shown that people who regularly drink moderate amounts of red wine catch the cold 60% less often!

 

But what about other alcoholic drinks?

Bad news for the ‘hot toddy’ fans I’m afraid: Whiskey with hot water does nothing to fight off a cold. It might make you feel better for a bit because the alcohol numbs a sore throat. In the morning you’ll probably wake up feeling just as bad as before.

Can Goose Fat Cure the Common Cold?

Anyone for some goose fat?

I was amazed when someone suggested that I try smearing fat from a Sunday Roast on your chest: it sounds disgusting! Goose fat has been used as a healing remedy since ancient times (the Egyptians used it to treat all sorts of things). In the 1930s it became the fashionable treatment for coughs. It’s probably something your Grandmother would try.

Feeling hot and feverish are common symptoms of infection

There hasn’t been any proper scientific research (shock horror) done on whether it works or not but I doubt anyone takes it seriously anymore. Goose fat contains lots of different chemicals, and some are absorbed through the skin but there’s no logical reason for it to have any benefit for curing coughs and colds.  Perhaps the slimy ‘soothing’ sensation on the skin that gives it’s ‘appeal’?!

If you want something to smear on your chest in the winter months, Vick’s Vapor rub is a popular choice and will probably smell better than using goose fat! Such ‘rubs’ contain menthol; camphor and eucalyptus oil and have a cooling effect on the skin. Although it has no virus-killing power and no evidence to prove it works against the common cold, it has been used for over 100 years and many people swear by it.

Does ANYTHING work?

Does Exercise help the Common Cold?

Perhaps George Bush had the right idea?

Being something of a self-confessed keep-fit freak, I think opting for a run sounds like a good idea. Many people hate the idea of exercise, but new research shows that keeping yourself fit and active can go a long way to preventing you from getting a cold. The results published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that you only need exercise 20 minutes a week to help protect yourself. 

What about just ignoring it and going to work?

When I was a child was never allowed a day off school unless I was at ‘death’s door’ (cue: violins)! My Mum always said “If you’re still feeling unwell by break-time then you can come home”! Was this careless parenting: as I coughed germs on my unsuspecting classmates?

Just seeing a sick person triggers an immune response

Research has shown that if you go to work when you’re a bit off-colour you actually help out your colleagues! Incredibly, just seeing someone else sneezing, coughing and looking unwell gives your immune system a boost! Your feelings of disgust and sympathy trigger your immune system into overdrive: preparing your body to get ready just in case!

Alas, Mother was right after all…

DISCLAIMER: Please don’t go to work if you are unwell and think you could be spreading infection. Send them a picture of you looking unwell – it will help them out no end!

 

Stay well this winter!

 

References:

David C Nieman, Dru A Henson, Melanie D Austin, Wei Sha. Upper respiratory tract infection is reduced in physically fit and active adults Br J Sports Med bjsports77875Published Online First: 1 November 2010 doi:10.1136/bjsm.2010.077875

Hemilä H, Chalker E, Douglas B. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD000980

Schaller, M., Miller, G.E., Gervais, W.M., Yager, S., & Chen, E. (2010). Mere visual perception of other people’s disease symptoms facilitates a more aggressive immune response. Psychological Science 2010 May;21(5):649-52

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About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...

Discussion

14 thoughts on “Can You Cure the Common Cold?

  1. Mrs R tells me that zinc tablets are great for boosting the immune system, thereby helping to protect against colds etc. She often mithers on and nags me constantly about certain things (much of which is utter drivel), but might she have something here?

    Posted by Pete Robertson | November 5, 2010, 3:11 pm
    • Zinc’s an interesting one. If you are zinc deficient then your immune system definately won’t work properly. It is found in lots of foods (meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts) and deficiency is pretty rare. Elderly and undernourished people are the main people at risk of this. People who eat a varied diet, almost certainly won’t need extra zinc.
      Some people have said that extra zinc can help fight the common cold. However, evidence is conflicting as to whether it works. Quite a bit of research has been done and the conclusion has been, well “inconclusive”! If it does help fight off colds then it is likely to only have a minor effect.
      It is possibleto overdo it on zinc supplements. It is wise to check the packet. Ingestion of more than the upper tolerable level of 40mg a day actually damages your immune system and can make you very unwell.
      Will Mrs R be impressed with your new found knowledge about zinc?!
      A GP or nutritional adviser would be able to guide anyone who is concerned about insufficient zinc intake…

      Posted by Stuart Farrimond | November 5, 2010, 9:52 pm
      • Thanks Dr Stu.
        My diet consists mainly of caffeine, nicotine & Weetabix (and the odd beer of an evening), so I suppose a daily zinc tablet can’t do much in the way of harm….. If the old boot tries to force more than one a day down the old gullet I’ll tell her to back off in case she kills me prematurely (whether she’s impressed with my newly-acquired knowledge or not!!!!).

        Thank you Dr Stu.

        Posted by Pete Robertson | November 8, 2010, 10:20 pm
  2. I endorse the warning against alcohol as a medicine, particularly if your common cold turns out to be ‘flu. The adverse- and stubbornly long-lasting- effects induced by whisky on the ‘flu virus put me off this form of home remedy for life.
    Has a study been undertaken to show that alcohol is actually liked by viruses?

    Posted by Paul Hamel | November 5, 2010, 3:22 pm
    • Well viruses are killed by high concentrations of alcohol – you might remember how many alcohol hand sanitizers were around during the swine flu outbreak?!
      Blood alcohol concentrations are much lower than that and so don’t kill the viruses – but they damage your immune cells. Excess alcohol is a poison and stops your white blood cells working as well: which is the reason why you get more unwell after a night on the whiskey. The reason why red wine seems to help (as I wrote about above) is thought to be something to do with ‘anti-oxidants’ found in the grapes.
      Red wine does lots of other good things like fighting cancer and reducing heart attack risk. You can read more about it: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/prevention/redwine
      It is said that red wine from the South West of France has amongst the greatest health benefits!

      Posted by Stuart Farrimond | November 5, 2010, 10:17 pm
  3. Hi Stuart,
    Over the years, we have come to rely on vitamin C as a preventative for the common cold. We regaularly take about one gram a day of powdered C disolved in water. This keeps us remarkably free of colds. If a cold should evade our defenses and start, we up the dose to one gram every hour, in chewable tablet form. This will in nearly all cases abort the cold within one day, leaving us in good health again.

    Before doing all this, I would get regular colds, perhaps two or three per year, with a couple of weeks after each with a blocked nose and generally feeling pretty rough. Now, I cannot remember the last time that either of us had a cold that lasted longer than 24 hours!

    Try it – it works!

    Posted by Guy | November 6, 2010, 12:15 pm
  4. Thanks for that Guy!

    Posted by Stuart Farrimond | November 6, 2010, 12:31 pm
  5. So is there anything that helps your body recover from a cold? You mention that exercise helps prevent getting one but is it a good idea when you’re already unwell?

    Posted by Louise Broadbent | July 4, 2012, 12:14 pm
  6. Hmm it seems like your site ate my first comment (it was extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.
    I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any recommendations for newbie blog writers? I’d definitely appreciate
    it.

    Posted by causes of lower back pain | April 20, 2013, 9:58 am

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About Dr Stu

Hospital doctor turned lecturer and science communicator, I love trying to answer life's questions - whether it is how our body works or the best way to dunk a biscuit.... Read more...

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