As a doctor, I spend much of my time debunking the assorted myths that people have about their health. For those of us working directly with the public, we sit at the junction between hard science and human experience. Medical knowledge is ever increasing, with more and more messages being fed to the public. Eat this, do that, don’t do the other. It is not a surprise that many of us may have a skewed sense of how our body works, and perhaps more importantly, what to do when it doesn’t.
Modern medicine relies on evidence, the synthesis of numerous research papers, studies of studies, resulting in what then becomes practice. As a result, understanding of disease processes and subsequent treatment changes over time.
From September onwards, I see a huge surge in the number of people suffering from colds. Thankfully, not everyone with a cold comes to the doctor, particularly as many are self-limiting and more importantly because there is no cure. If I had a cure for the common cold, you wouldn’t be seeing me in clinic…I’d be sat on my yacht in the Carribean sipping a mojito.
We’ve all had a cold before. Coughs, sneezes, runny noses and sore throat plague many of us, not just in the winter months, but all year round. We only have to look at the shelves of our local pharmacy or supermarket to find a plethora of different remedies. Many people I meet have their own secret weapon in their fight against the common cold.
Vitamin C has been widely touted as effective against common colds but more recent evidence suggests this is simply not the case. At present, there is no benefit to be derived from regular Vitamin C supplementation in regards to treating the common cold. Zinc has been shown to reduce the duration of colds if taken in the first twenty-four hours but this must be tempered by potential side effects of the treatment.
Paracetamol has been shown to reduce nasal symptoms such as a runny nose but doesn’t seem to help other features such as sore throat, malaise, sneezing or cough. Likewise, steam inhalation has limited effect, and garlic is of little value too.
There is no evidence for using nasal sprays such as inhaled steroids or saline. Over-the-counter cold and flu remedies containing pain relief, antihistamines and nasal decongestants might have some benefit, particularly for older children and adults, but not for young children.
What can we do to prevent colds? There is variable evidence for hand washing but if in doubt it’s probably a good idea. As far as medical treatment is concerned, we are all left out in the cold.
Header image rights; Allan Foster