Common cold: The centuries-old battle against the sniffles

Woman sneezing

As the weather finally cools, pharmacies brace themselves for the beginning of the "winter remedies" rush. But why are people still searching for a cure for the common cold?

Can you feel it coming on yet - the sore throat, the fever, the streaming nose, the headache?

If so, get well soon. But you can take comfort in the fact that you'll soon be in good company.

October marks the start of the peak season for the UK's "winter remedies" market - the over-the-counter pharmaceuticals used to treat the common cold.

But if decongestants, cough sweets and hot, lemon-flavoured drinks are the modern-day methods by which we tackle the familiar symptoms, humankind has a long tradition of searching out ways to soothing this most familiar of conditions.

From ancient Greece to mediaeval Europe, blood-letting, leeches and more resilient treatments like chicken soup have all been used in attempts to ease recovery.

But though our understanding of the viruses that cause colds has improved over time, and with it our remedies, a cure remains as elusive as ever.

And with the average UK adult suffering two to five colds a year, according to Cardiff University's Common Cold Centre, it is little wonder that un-bunging ourselves is big business.

In 2010, the market research company Mintel says sales of winter remedies were worth £532m - an increase of 10% over five years. In the US, it has been suggested that the cost of colds to the American economy could be as much as $40bn (£26bn).

Why is a cure for colds unlikely?

  • Common cold is not a single disease but caused by up to 200 different viruses
  • By the time the symptoms - caused by the body's immune system reacting to these viruses - are present it would be too late for an antivirus
  • Any new medication would have to be extremely safe as it would be very popular
  • It would not be worth taking unless the side effects were extremely mild or non-existent
  • If the medicine was widely used, cold viruses would quickly develop resistance in the same way bacteria have overcome antibiotics

The advice given by doctors to patients suffering from colds may be straightforward - rest, drink lots of fluid, take moderate doses of painkiller and decongestant to ameliorate the symptoms. But treatments have varied wildly down the years.

According to Prof Ronald Eccles of Cardiff's Common Cold Centre, colds have been with us since humans gathered in any sort of community - at least since the Iron Age onwards.

For at least 3,000 years, the Chinese have treated blocked noses with ma huang, a plant often brewed as tea. It contains pseudoephedrine, commonly used in modern over-the-counter cold remedies as a decongestant.

Early thinkers believed cold symptoms were caused by the penetration of low temperatures into the body and warm drinks were used to treat this, Prof Eccles says.

The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who pioneered the practice of clinical observation, believed colds were caused by a build-up of waste matter on the brain.

Chicken soup was hailed as a treatment as early as AD60 by Pedacius Dioscorides, a Roman surgeon under Nero, and it was hailed as "an excellent food as well as medication" by the 12th Century physician Moses Maimonides. In fact, neither were far wide of the mark - modern studies have demonstrated that chicken contains the amino acid cysteine, which has mild decongestant proprieties.

James Wong and Sophie Dahl test Mrs Beeton's homemade cold remedy

However, not all early cold treatments had a kernel of science to them.

"Old European ideas related to accumulation of fluid in the body that was expelled via the nose - hence bleeding and medicines that made patients vomit were popular to rid body of excess fluid," Prof Eccles adds.

Despite this, some mediaeval treatments were inadvertently valuable. In the Middle Ages, some Christians believed the soul could leave the body during sneezing, so cold sufferers were urged to cover their mouths - a custom which would have prevented the spread of viruses.

As the early modern period dawned, it was external rather than internal precipitation that became the focus, according to Dr Carole Reeves of University College London's Centre for the History of Medicine.

"The idea of catching cold was that it was about getting wet, getting it in the rain, getting a chill, being out in the cold weather," she says. "The idea of catching it from other people wasn't there in the way it is now."

For this reason, she says, bathing was discouraged for cold sufferers.

"It was believed that it would soften your skin and weaken your body," adds Dr Reeves.

Mrs Beeton's cold remedy

From Mrs Beeton's Book of Home Management, published in 1861

"TO CURE A COLD. Put a large teacupful of linseed [seeds, not oil], with 1/4 lb. of sun raisins [these are just raisins] and 2 oz of stick liquorice, into 2 quarts of soft water, and let it simmer over a slow fire till reduced to one quart; add to it 1/4 lb of pounded sugar-candy [sugar], a tablespoonful of old rum, and a tablespoonful of the best white-wine vinegar, or lemon-juice.

"The rum and vinegar should be added as the decoction is taken; for, if they are put in at first, the whole soon becomes flat and less efficacious.

"The dose is half a pint, made warm, on going to bed; and a little may be taken whenever the cough is troublesome.

"The worst cold is generally cured by this remedy in two or three days; and, if taken in time, is considered infallible.

"COLD ON THE CHEST. A flannel dipped in boiling water, and sprinkled with turpentine, laid on the chest as quickly as possible, will relieve the most severe cold or hoarseness."

These notions were eventually dispelled by none other than Benjamin Franklin, the noted polymath, scientist and Founding Father of the United States, who conducted studies into the common cold and concluded that it was transmitted through the air between individuals.

The dawn of the Victorian era saw no let-up in the search for a cure. In Mrs Beeton's Book of Home Management, a best-seller for decades after it was first published in 1861, there is a chapter on first aid and home remedies - including a hot toddy cold treatment.

Containing linseed, sun raisins, liquorice and rum, Mrs Beeton wrote that the "worst cold is generally cured by this remedy in two or three days". She added that the mixture, "if taken in time, is considered infallible".

Her claim that the mixture could cure colds may have been an overstatement. But according to Prof Eccles, it would certainly have proved soothing.

"Any hot, sweet, tasty remedy will provide good relief from common cold symptoms, especially cough and sore throat," he says.

Many of the treatments we see on the shelves of modern-day pharmacists were developed in the wake of studies carried out by the Common Cold Unit, a research institute near Salisbury, Wiltshire, which operated from 1946 to 1989.

Its founding purpose - to find a cure - may never have been achieved. But the unit deepened scientific understanding of the condition, isolating coronaviruses and rhinoviruses, two of the most frequent causes of colds.

Its research was conducted by studying paid volunteers who would stay at the site for around 10 days at a time. According to Prof Tilli Tansey, a medical historian at Queen Mary University of London, who has studied the unit, it became an oddly popular form of package holiday during the post-war years.

"It was a bit like Butlins," she says. "Some people did see it as a holiday - this was the era of austerity. You'd go off for a couple of weeks, stay in a chalet and have your meals cooked for you."

Such was the basis of our modern "winter remedies". In the 21st Century, however, few are likely to treat a cold as a leisure break.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    @Laatab It's always irritated me how the BBC only allow comments on certain articles and only very inconsequential ones like you said. They don't seem to give any real reason for it either. A tad controlling for my liking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    @ 113. james laker
    "..Antoine Bechamp, a French physician and toxicologist discovered that nearly all diseases were caused by a toxic system.."

    He didn't 'discover" it - he theorized it. It's called pleomorphism and he posited that bacteria could actually morph into fungi or viruses - and even morph back again! More recent studies on viruses have consequently discredited his theories.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    Ok we'll pass comment on a cure for the cold, the iphone 4s and tattoos. We wont comment on the important news today like the economy and the NHS becauase it might be a source of subversion that will upset the government and affect the BBC's entitlement to the licence fee. Wake up!

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    I find hot vanilla essence kills the sniffs off for ever.Sounds like an old wive's tale, but true.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    Why would you want to cure a cold? Our bodies are very good at dealing with all kinds of viruses. It is important to be exposed to them to develop a healthy immune system. Taking the edge off unpleasant symptoms is very nice though... thanks to cheap generic pharmaceuticals!


Comments 5 of 130


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