EVERYONE knows that you can’t cure the common cold. Your nose may be dripping like a tap, your throat feels as sore as if you’ve sandpapered it, and your head like it’s stuffed with cotton wool, but ask a doctor for help and you’ll be laughed out the surgery.
The reason, of course, is because the cold is a virus, which means there’s nothing for it but to get under the duvet with a Lemsip and try and sleep your way through it. Antibiotics are not going to touch it.
“The common cold is caused by Rhinovirus, of which there are around 100 different types,” explains Dr Clare Taylor, a microbiologist from Napier University. “The virus is transmitted through the air in tiny droplets which are released when you sneeze. Others can inhale these droplets, which allows the virus to gain access to the upper-respiratory tract, where it likes to reside.
“And despite the fact there are numerous things you can buy from your pharmacist, there are no effective treatments for the common cold.”
She adds: “The best advice is to take medication to alleviate the symptoms, sneeze into a tissue, and wash your hands thoroughly after sneezing.”
Which, of course, is all eminently sensible. But does it stop people having their own apparently failsafe cures for the cold? Well, no.
Here are ten of the wackiest cold “cures” doing the rounds.
■ EAT OYSTERS
Earlier this year a report by the department of family medicine at Canada’s University of Alberta suggested that zinc is the supplement needed to ward off colds.
Studies found it can increase the function of white blood cells – the ones which rule the immune system – and boost the health of mucus membranes, our barrier against cold viruses. Oysters in particular are high in zinc, which could make them beneficial – around half a dozen will provide more than twice your daily zinc needs – as could crab meat. But if you’re not so keen on shellfish or seafood you could chow down on beef shank, pumpkin seeds, mushrooms and spinach. However don’t overdo it, because as with many minerals, too much zinc can be problematic.
■ DRINK MORE TEA
It’s nature’s gift that just keeps on giving. Tea is packed with antioxidants which could possibly, if you drink enough, help you ward off a cold – you certainly never see anyone in EastEnders laid low with the sniffles, do you? However, it’s more likely, suggest studies, that it’s just a “hot drink” which can have positive effects on nasal air flow, providing relief for a runny nose, cough and blocked sinuses. Like a mini-face steamer.
■ TAKE ECHINACEA
This alternative cold cure has been around for a while now, but is still dividing opinion.
It’s a wild flower that comes from North America and native Americans are said to use the plant for a variety of conditions ranging from cuts and colds to snake bites. It is believed to influence our immune system by increasing the number of white blood cells in the body that fight off germs and stop viruses from spreading. It may also raise the production of interferon, a protein that prevents the virus from reproducing in cells, killing off the infection.
However scientific studies have found no conclusive proof either way about its benefits.
■ CHICKEN SOUP
Could there be any truth in the old wives’ tale that chicken soup is a cold cure –as well as being good for the soul?
Well, it has been investigated by medical researchers at the University of Nebraska, and evidence was found that it contains anti-inflammatory properties that may, at least, prevent some of the miserable side effects of a cold.
Dr Stephen Rennard, a pulmonary expert, tested the migration of white blood cells to deal with the cold virus – and discovered that when chicken soup was involved fewer cells moved, and so less mucous was created.
His theory is that some ingredient in the soup – and he tested both home-made and tinned – blocks, or slows, the amount of cells congregating in the lungs, possibly relieving congestion.
“The biologically active material is unknown,” he admits. “It may be that some complex chemistry takes place, that the entire concoction of ingredients makes it work.”
Is it another old wives’ tale, or does eating garlic help to ward off colds as well as vampires?
Well, garlic is certainly believed to have significant anti-bacterial and antioxident qualities and a US study did show that people who took garlic supplements for 12 weeks during the winter developed fewer colds than those who took a placebo.
■ STUFF ONIONS IN YOUR WET SOCKS
Yes. You read that right. If you’re not content with breathing out garlic vapours, you can up your odour levels by slicing an onion and putting it in your socks.
There is some logic to this, apparently. Onions, like garlic, contain allicin, an infection-fighting compound and also sulphur which is believed to boost immune response.
Quite why you should put them in your socks rather than just eat them remains unclear.
However, socks are also part of another cure – an assistant professor at the College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto has recently suggested that pulling on a pair of cold, wet socks at night can fight off a cold. Leslie Solomonian argues that the cold encourages your body to boost circulation to your feet and direct it away from your congested head, while regulating your immune system and eliminating toxic waste.
She says: “Soak a pair of socks in cold water, put them on your feet and cover them with a pair of wool or thermal socks. Go to bed and keep your feet in a warm blanket.” Who knew?
■ LISTEN TO JAZZ
Billie Holiday fans are in luck. Research has shown that listening to jazz for 30 minutes boosts our levels of Immunoglobulin A (IgA), an immune protein that plays a critical role in defending against infection.
“IgA resides in the mucosa — the lining of the nose, mouth, throat and other areas of the body. It acts as an antibody and prevents virus, bacteria and other microorganism infection,” explains Jean-Jacques Dugoua, a naturopathic doctor.
Furthermore, adds Dr Dugoua, the effect of jazz on IgA levels continues for an additional half hour after music stops playing. Bluegrass, choral music and soft rock have also been shown to induce a similar response.
■ CHEST MUSTARD
Think mustard is just a condiment at dinner time? Think again – it can apparently have a major impact on a cold, especially if it’s spread across your chest.
Known as a “mustard plaster”, if you grind three tablespoons of mustard seeds and add water to make a paste, you can then slather it over your chest. The pungent aroma helps to unclog stuffy sinuses while the heat improves circulation and eases congestion. But don’t leave it on for longer than 15 minutes or your skin may burn.
Mustard powder can also be used in water to create a footbath, which like the cold socks, draws blood to the feet and relieves congestion in the head.
You can add fighting a cold to the list of never-ending benefits associated with exercise, as it, too, has an anti-inflammatory effect and can reduce the risk of infection. It’s important, however, to keep it at a gentle pace, since high intensity exercise may temporarily weaken the immune system.
Moderate exercise elevates the body temperature, which can increase the efficiency of the immune response. Five or ten minutes in a steam room could also do the trick.
■ EAT CHOCOLATE
As wonderful as this remedy sounds, there’s a catch: sugar-sweetened and milk chocolate don’t apply. Try hot, dark chocolate and sweeten it lightly with honey, as it contains theobromine, a component that suppresses the nerve activity responsible for coughing and has been found to be three times more effective in stopping persistent coughs than codeine.
Sugar, on the other hand, can weaken immunity, so it’s best to avoid it all together when you have a cold.