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).

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.

Media caption,

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.

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.