It’s that time of the year- indulgence, festivities and of sniffing, coughing and sneezing. It does at times feel like a zombie apocalypse is about to take off as everyone goes on high alert. On social media sites, feeds are filled with who has the cold or flu. But what are also prevalent on these sites are suggestions about how to speed up recovery. But… these are all anecdotal, so just how scientific are some of these suggestions?
What is the cold?
Let’s start with the basics. There are about 200 viruses that cause the cold. Symptoms start roughly 2/3 days after infection and lasts up to two weeks. It is caught by either inhaling the virus or touching surfaces that the virus has come into contact with and then touching your mouth, eyes or nose. As I write the first draft of this piece on a plane I’m suddenly aware of the ‘closed’ system I’m in! Symptoms are not as severe as the flu which could develop into pneumonia and can also be prevented by vaccination. The problem with the cold virus is that it mutates so quickly that each new strain poses a renewed threat. There are two lines of defence taken; firstly, the white blood cells known as macrophages and the second (the T- and B- lymphocytes). Symptoms arise from the body fighting back, such as with high temperatures. It turns out that one type of lymphocyte (CD8+ cytotoxic T-cell) that kills virus infected cells is aided by high temperatures. Obviously while some high temperatures can be dangerous, it certainly helps to keep warm to fight a cold.
To bust some myths about what can or can’t give you a cold the New Scientist states the following: It has nothing do with how strong or weak your immune system is, and you are more likely to get one if you are stressed.
What about medicines and complementary alternatives?
Science based medicine discusses the effectiveness of over the counter medicines and finds that generally most of them do not work, which includes cough medicines and vapour therapies. Honey however was found to improve cough symptoms.
Complementary alternatives are the topic most commonly found in social media sites with a lot of people swearing by something or another. But clinical studies which should follow gold standard rules usually find that most do not work. So why do people say they do? The truth is if you have a cold your body is already fighting it therefore it just a matter of time before you are healed. Ben Goldacre in his book Bad Science describes this time-dependent process as ‘regression to the mean’ where it appears that something you have done is what has cured you. I am further grateful to Dr Goldacre as he uses this very term to explain why homeopathy does not work (page 38).
There is weak evidence that probiotics have a significant effect on prevention and curing colds. Studies in children have shown different results and this has been interpreted that different species and strains may have differential curative properties. Saline nasal sprays and washes have been found to provide some nasal obstruction relief, and zinc has been found to have a mild improvement in reducing length and severity of a cold. This was shown only in one study where it was taken at high doses and orally, but do not do this folks as it is not safe and can result in a nasty after taste. Vitamin C taken on a regular basis can also reduce the length and severity of a cold but only slightly. It however does not reduce the frequency of catching one. For those under extreme physical duress, it can cut the number colds caught (NCCIH).
Cup of Tea anyone?
For herbal remedies, well this is a commonly talked about area. Studies have found that the following do not have any significant effect: Chinese herbal medicines, elderberry, green tea, North American ginseng, pomegranate extract, astragalus and andrographis. For people who might believe that their herbal teas are improving their cold, I personally think it could be because that they are simply remaining well hydrated. Echinacea is a herb that is the subject of great discussion. Even I have been drawn to the power of it! But it was a recent discussion with someone that prompted me to look into it scientifically, and by extension the whole subject of curing colds.
Of all the sources I have found which range in date from 2010 to 2015 (BBC, NHS, NCCIH, Science based Medicine) and have reviewed numerous studies done on echinacea, they all say the same thing: the evidence is variable, insignificant and therefore not strong enough to suggest that it might work. Now this could be because echinacea products and the methods to prepare them are all different. Echinacea comes from the daisy family of which there are nine species but only three are used medicinally. From either the roots, flowers, leaves or the whole plant, a preparation can be made to produce a juice, tea, tincture or tablet. There are four types of components that might boost the immune system: alkamides, glycoproteins, polysaccharides and caffeine acid derivatives, and not all of them can be found in all the same parts of the plant.
So clearly some of the above chemicals might have an effect on helping recovery, but strong evidence is still lacking. When it comes to taking any type of herbal products or supplements see your GP or pharmacist before you do!! Side effects do occur! The other thing to bear in mind is that actually we should not be boosting our immune systems too much anyway. People with over-active immune systems, such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis have been advised in the USA to avoid echinacea.
But what does work then?
Prevention is better than a cure. Avoid touching surfaces that others with colds have touched. If that means wearing gloves while on the bus and using your sleeves to open doors, so be it. If you have touched those surfaces then avoid touching your face. Wash your hands frequently as well. If you are inflicted, the best thing to do is eat healthy (as this will generate heat which will boost your immune system to fight back) and drink loads to stay hydrated. It is probably best to not drink too much alcohol even if red wine does appear to help. Having a fever dehydrates so by drinking this prevents the mucus from drying up to keep it running (how nice!) Anything with rising steam or vapour like soups or teas provides the body with both: healthy food and hydration, and last of all, sleep.
I started writing this piece on my out-bound plane trip utterly aware that I could come down with something despite my preventative measures. As I finished writing this piece on my in-bound trip I feel myself coming down with what feels like flu. But hopefully by the time I have posted this I will know if it is either a cold or flu!
Final conclusion: It’s just bad cold, but because my partner has the flu we have had to cancel our New Year’s Eve plans. Happy New Year everyone and have a healthy 2016!!