Opinion: Time is the only remedy for a cold – Montreal Gazette

As I write these words, I’m flat on my back nursing a bad cold. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not too bad. After all, I’m pretty sure I’ll live, although the sheer number of crumpled up tissues on the floor next to my bed suggests otherwise.

Everyone who has ever got sick has invariably asked themselves the same question: “Why don’t we have a cure for this?”

Well it’s not for lack of trying.

The truth though is that tens of millions of dollars have been spent researching potential treatments. And with good reason, because the common cold is, as the name implies, very common.

It’s a widely held belief that vitamin C will either cure or prevent the common cold. It will not. A 2013 meta-analysis showed that taking vitamin C regularly will not prevent the onset of symptoms. The only benefit that was observed was in people who took it regularly every day of their lives. Although it did not prevent them from catching the cold, it shortened the cold duration by 8 per cent. That means that if your cold would have lasted 7 days, it would be shortened to 6.4 days with vitamin C. Personally, I find that really unimpressive. I should also point out that the benefit was primarily seen in marathon runners, skiers, and soldiers performing intense sub-arctic exercises. Since I have no plans to join a Finnish paramilitary group or participate in the Winter Olympics, I have discounted this finding is rather irrelevant.

So is there any downside to taking vitamin C when you’re sick? Not really. You need to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration, and one fluid is probably just as good as any other. There’s no real reason to favour orange juice over apple juice or hot tea with honey.

But the situation is different with zinc. There was some initial excitement about zinc in the 1970s with research showing that zinc could block virus replication in a test tube and, consequently, zinc tablets are also often touted as a cure for the common cold. A review of the evidence is far from impressive. Although zinc doesn’t decrease the severity of cold symptoms, it does seem to decrease the duration of symptoms. Although, like vitamin C it decreases symptom duration by about one day, which is pretty meaningless. Unfortunately, unlike vitamin C, zinc has some risks. High doses of vitamin C are simply excreted into your urine so you’re really just peeing money away, but high doses of zinc can lead to permanent anosmia, or a loss of the sense of smell. In 2009, the FDA put out an advisory for some zinc intra-nasal sprays to warn the public of the risk. If you ask me, losing your sense of smell is a big price to pay for the privilege of returning to work one day sooner.

Finally we come to echinacea, probably the most common cold cure out there. Well, my medication is starting to wear off so we’ll have to keep this brief. It doesn’t work. Not at all. Not one bit. It’s completely useless.

In the end, the best way to prevent the common cold is to wash your hands frequently and avoid co-workers who believe they’re too important to stay home when sick. Once you catch a cold, time is the only remedy. Decongestants, cough syrups and other over-the-counter products will likely make that time more bearable.

One word of caution though. Don’t go buying large amounts of pseudoephedrine (the stuff in nasal decongestants). The police may think you’re trying to start a meth lab. Then you’ll have bigger problems and I can’t help you with that. I’m going back to bed.

Christopher Labos is a Montreal doctor who writes about medicine and health issues.

Christopher.labos@mail.mcgill.ca

twitter.com/drlabos

 

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