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There are many things to like about winter – chunky scarves, porridge on frosty mornings, a three-month-long excuse to not shave your legs… However, there is a downside: getting struck down by the cold. While you can catch the common cold all year ’round, when winter takes hold it seems to be a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.
On average, adults suffer through two to three colds per year. You know how it goes: there’s a sniffle, a sneeze, and then before you know it utter misery has taken hold: your head’s pounding, your throat feels like it’s been grated, and you honestly believe you may perish under the pile of tissues you’ve burned through.
It’s hard to fathom that in 2014 we have self-destructing text messages but no cure or vaccine for the cold. That’s because at least 200 viruses are known to cause the cold, so it’s impossible to isolate and target just one of them. Unlike bacterial infections, which can exist and multiply on their own, viruses require living cells in order to reproduce – so ‘curing’ a virus at the source would involve turning off the body’s cells. As you can imagine, that wouldn’t end very well.
In other words, the best we can do is treat the symptoms and cross our fingers. But is it better to seek medical or au naturel remedies? We ask a doctor and a naturopath for their take on easing the suffering.
Frank Bowden, Professor of Medicine at ANU and Specialist in Infectious Diseases at ACT Health, says easing the symptoms of a cold is a matter of common sense and the amount of money you want to spend. “The answer is to go for the cheapest thing that you possibly can, knowing that nothing’s going to make much of a difference,” he explains.
“So if you’ve got a headache, you take something for your head – the safest being paracetamol. For a sore throat, you can have the simplest things like honey and lemon, which is what I do. If you’ve got a really blocked nose, some people take an anti-congestant, but they don’t work all that well.”
Maintaining a normal intake of fluids and resting are also recommended. “When the body has a virus inside it, the wisdom of your own body is that you feel a bit lousy and you want to go to bed, so go to bed and rest,” Professor Bowden says. “Pushing through a serious viral infection can be bad for you and slow your recovery.”
How you treat your cold symptoms also depends on how your body responds to the virus – some people are lucky in that their immune system doesn’t product the symptoms of a cold. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to boost your natural immune system – you can only maintain its strength, says Professor Bowden.
He adds the only evidence-based way to ward off the cold is through regular hand-washing: “If you want to spread a cold you spread it by touching your nose and then your hands touch someone else, and that person’s hand touches their eyes, which is a way of getting it in your system, or their own nose.”
As for natural remedies, Professor Bowden is quick to point out that “just because something’s got the word ‘natural’ next to it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have some toxicity”. He says studies of popular treatments like vitamin C and echinacea have revealed they offer “little to no benefit” in treating colds. However, there may be a chance that zinc offers a “modest benefit”, because it’s been shown to produce side effects in the body.
Mim Beim, naturopath and author of Natural Remedies: An A-Z of Cures for Health and Wellbeing, says taking the right combination of natural remedies within the first few hours of symptoms appearing – for instance, feeling that telltale throat tickle or drop in energy – can help reduce the duration of a cold.
“The secret is to take a big dose of [natural] remedies, and continue with a dose every couple of hours,” Mim explains. “If you miss the boat … the best that can be done is to reduce the chance of a secondary bacterial infection and to speed recovery.” Mim’s cold treatment of choice is a combination of echinacea, Andrographic, vitamin C, A, zinc and bioflavonoids. However, she advises that the effectiveness of these products depends on getting the dosage right: “The label might be erring on the cautious side – ask your naturopath or in-store naturopath.”
Mim also recommends using garlic, especially when there’s a lot of mucus, and her go-to “magic brew”. “Into a teapot or infuser, simply squeeze the juice of one lemon, grate and add the rind; also grate 2 centimetres of fresh ginger root, add a handful of crushed thyme and a spoonful of honey. Add hot water and steep for five minutes.”
When purchasing herbs and other natural remedies, Mim recommends seeking advice as to which brands are best, and opting for practitioner brands – “the quality of the herbs and dosage of supplements tend to be superior.”
A natural approach to helping prevent colds revolves around diet – eating lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, avoiding sugar, reducing alcohol and eating garlic regularly. “If you are particularly prone to colds, take a daily dose of echinacea, zinc and cod liver oil a month before cold season,” Mim adds.
Whether you opt for a natural, medical or ‘just soldier on’ approach to tackling your symptoms, there is a silver lining: the average cold lasts between 3 and 10 days, depending on your immune system and the virus. So no matter how heinous they are, those aches, pains and sniffles will be gone eventually. As Professor Bowden jokes, “except for men who get colds, everyone recovers.”
What’s your go-to cold remedy?