Covering your chest with brown paper and vinegar, soaking your feet in hot water, or wearing wet socks – the old cures for the common cold can seem laughable in light of modern medicine.
Yet the apparent benefits of many of the treatments we take for granted today – such as dosing up on vitamins or snorting salt water – evaporate under scrutiny. So what works and what doesn’t? BBC Future has sifted through the evidence to find out.
Don’t dose up on vitamin C (but perhaps boost your zinc)
“The first thing that many people will try is to supplement their diet with vitamins C and D,” says Michael Allan at the University of Alberta in Canada, who recently reviewed the evidence for the most popular remedies. “But the evidence is terrible for those.” Dosing up on vitamin C has been shown to mildly protect people under great physical strain– such as marathon runners – from falling ill, but for the average person it reduces your risk by just a 3%. “If an adult gets two colds a year, you’ll only avoid one cold in 15 years,” says Allan.
Zinc lozenges may have a firmer footing. Based on three clinical trials, Allan says that children taking regular zinc supplements will suffer roughly 1 to 1.5 fewer colds a year, on average – compared to the six to eight that is normal for school children. There is also some evidence that it can reduce the duration of a cold by a day or so. Given that zinc tastes unpleasantly astringent, and you would need to take it all year round for the full benefit, Allan is unsure if he would recommend it for general use.
Do enjoy a tipple… maybe
Don’t take antibiotics, but do consider cold relief pills
Put bluntly, there is no reason why antibiotics should help – since they target bacteria, whereas it is a virus that causes a cold. “There’s no real benefit from antibiotics, but they do increase the risk of adverse events like diarrhoea,” says Allan. Your best bet is to try to reduce your symptoms. Over-the-counter pills that combine antihistamines with decongestants or painkillers help relieve some of the nastier symptoms for adults (not children). But even then, the benefits are often modest and probably differ between people, and the particular types of infection they are suffering from, says Allan.
Do take a spoonful of honey (but beware other herbal remedies)
Finally… ask for some TLC
The people that surround you may just determine how quickly you recover. Patients who report feeling greater empathy from their doctor seem to get over their illness more quickly, an effect that can be seen both in their own reports of the symptoms, and more objective measures of their immune activity. It’s not clear if the same is true of people closer to home, but in the absence of a miracle cure, a little compassion is not much to ask – and might just provide solace where the other remedies have failed.
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