The common cold has the twin distinction of being both the world’s most widespread infectious disease and one of the most elusive. The name is a problem, for starters. In almost every Indo-European language, one of the words for the disease relates to low temperature, yet experiments have shown that low temperature neither increases the likelihood of catching a cold, nor the severity of symptoms. Then there is the “common” part, which seems to imply that there is a single, indiscriminate pathogen at large. In reality, more than 200 viruses provoke cold-like illness, each one deploying its own peculiar chemical and genetic strategy to evade the body’s defences.
It is hard to think of another disease that inspires the same level of collective resignation. The common cold slinks through homes and schools, towns and cities, making people miserable for a few days without warranting much afterthought. Adults suffer an average of between two and four colds each year, and children up to 10, and we have come to accept this as an inevitable part of life.
Public understanding remains a jumble of folklore and false assumption. In 1984, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison decided to investigate one of the best-known ways of catching a cold. They infected volunteers with a cold virus and instructed them to kiss healthy test subjects on the mouth for at least one minute. (The instruction for participants was to use whichever technique was “most natural”.) Sixteen healthy volunteers were kissed by people with colds. The result: just one confirmed infection.
The most common beliefs about how to treat the disease have turned out to be false. Dubious efficacy has done little to deter humankind from formulating remedies. The Ebers Papyrus, a medical document from ancient Egypt dated to 1550BC, advises a cold sufferer to recite an incantation, “in association with the administration of milk of one who has borne a male child, and fragrant gum”. In 1924, US President Calvin Coolidge sat down in an airtight chlorine chamber and inhaled the pungent, noxious gas for almost an hour on the advice of his physicians, who were certain that his cold would be cured quickly. (It wasn’t.)
Today, “winter remedy” sales in the UK reach £300m each year, though most over-the-counter products have not actually been proven to work. Some contain paracetamol, an effective analgesic, but the dosage is often sub-optimal. Taking vitamin C in regular doses does little to ward off disease. Hot toddies, medicated tissues and immune system “boosts” of echinacea or ginger are ineffective. Antibiotics do nothing for colds. The only failsafe means of avoiding a cold is to live in complete isolation from the rest of humanity.
Read more at: Why can’t we cure the common cold? | News | The Guardian