Feed a cold, starve a fever? Runny nose or blocked altogether? Constant sneezing, sore throat, cough, and watery eyes? Yes, you’ve got a cold. Here are some good-to-know facts about the common cold that could be useful in your quest to battle it.
The common cold is the most frequently experienced infection among humans. And common or not, it’s miserable.
According to Prof Ronald Eccles of Cardiff’s Common Cold Centre, colds have been with us since humans gathered in any sort of community – which means we’ve been dealing with colds and sniffles for anywhere from three to six thousand years.
And we’ve been coming up with treatments for at least as long. Two thousand years ago the Chinese brewed a tea from the ma huang plant in order to induce perspiration and treat the symptoms of bronchial asthma, colds and influenza. Known as ephedra, it’s still in use today in varying forms.
The ancient Egyptians described 20 different types of coughs, and proposed various therapeutic remedies, such as aromatic resin and the milk of a woman who’d borne a son. In order to drive the cold out of the body, it was recommended to spread a mixture of lead, incense and honey on the nose for 4 days.
By the 1st century A.D., Greek physicians were prescribing pounded mustard inhaled into the nose to stimulate sneezing. Sulfur was also considered effective, and a mixture of onion juice and honey was helpful in discharging mucus.
Bloodletting was also popular with the ancient Greeks, who appear to have adopted it from the Egyptians. It became common throughout the Roman Empire, spreading to India and the Arab world, and maintained its popularity well into the 19th century.
Moses Maimonides, a medieval Jewish scholar, wrote extensively about the benefits of chicken broth in “neutralizing the body’s constitution”. That advice is echoed today by doctors and grandmothers all over the world.
Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published in 1861, contained a recipe for treating the common cold with what sounded suspiciously like a hot toddy: linseed, raisins, liquorice, rum and white wine vinegar. She recommended drinking half a pint just before bedtime. “The worst cold,” she wrote, “is generally cured by this remedy in two or three days; and, if taken in time, is considered infallible.”
So, after battling the common cold since the Iron Age, are we any further ahead in curing it? The answer is: probably not.
In the interests of giving you something to read while you’re sipping chicken soup and watching TV re-runs on your tablet, here are some common cold facts:
The common cold is a virus – in fact it’s more than 200 viruses. And it’s not curable. With so many viruses wreaking havoc the idea of creating an effective vaccine is pretty much out the window.
The worst of these viruses are called “rhinoviruses” (from the Greek word rhin, meaning “nose”). Rhinoviruses usually live for about three hours on your skin or any touchable surface, but they can survive for up to two days.
Childhood reminders to wash your hands make sense for a lot of reasons, but especially when it comes to colds. It has to do with the way colds are spread. When someone with a cold coughs or sneezes, germ-laden droplets land on keyboards, telephones, counter tops and door handles. They can live on those surfaces for hours, just waiting for you to come along, touch them, and spread them to your nose, eyes or mouth. Regular hand-washing gets rid of the germs and prevents them from being spread.
You tend to cough more at night for two reasons: Partly because you’re lying down which makes it harder for your body to clear your airways. And partly because the air in the room may be dry, which can also be a cause of throat irritation.
Finally, if you’re also experiencing fever, muscle aches and pains, headaches and exhaustion, you’re more likely down with the flu. When fighting a cold, it’s important to keep your strength up so healthy eating is vital. Fever is the immune system’s response when it’s under attack: bacterial or viral infections cause the body’s temperature to rise, which burns up calories. Once again, food is needed for energy.
So the old adage would be better put: “Feed a cold, and also feed a fever.”