Treating a Cold

When it comes to treating a cold, your grandmother knew best: get some rest, bundle up, drink hot liquids, and take cod liver oil.

| September/October 1980

  • 065 treating a cold - Fotolia - IS2
    Dr. Tom Ferguson recommended the same method of treating a cold as would your grandmother: rest, warm clothing, and warm fluids.

  • 065 treating a cold - Fotolia - IS2

For generations, grandmothers have prescribed a standard set of remedies for treating a cold: Get into bed, bundle up, drink plenty of hot liquids, and take cod liver oil and garlic. In the last 30 years, though, with the advent of high-technology medicine and so-called "wonder drugs," Grandma's home remedies have come to be viewed as little more than superstitious vestiges of the medical Dark Ages.

However, while modern science hasn't cured the common cold, it has improved our understanding of how viruses affect the body. And new knowledge points to two surprising conclusions about the nation's most infectious disease: Grandma's home remedies work ... and most over-the-counter cold preparations often do more harm than good!

To understand these two somewhat surprising discoveries, let's look at the life cycle of the typical cold. You don't "catch" a cold in the sense that your normally virus-free body suddenly becomes overwhelmed by a virulent horde of invading microbes. Cold viruses are with us all the time. They live in the healthy mouth, sinuses, and throat tissues which usually protect the body from attack by viruses. Such tissues are covered with microscopic hairs, known as cilia, and a thin blanket of mucus. The moist mucus traps the virus particles, and its mildly acidic chemical composition impedes their reproduction long enough for the cilia to sweep them into the stomach ... where digestive acids kill them.

Events that typically precede a cold—such as fatigue, stress, overwork, lack of sleep, anxiety, personal problems, poor diet, or exposure to cold—upset this delicate ecology and leave the throat drier, less acidic, and a trifle cooler. Such changes allow virus particles to penetrate the mucus layer, invade throat cells, and reproduce. Curing a cold, therefore, doesn't involve "eradicating cold germs" ... because they live inside us and cannot be eliminated. Curing a cold means restoring the balance of forces that should have prevented the viruses from reproducing in the first place. And, strange as it may seem, cold symptoms actually work toward reestablishing that balance.

When cold viruses penetrate the mucus blanket, their reproduction kills throat cells. As the cells die, they release several substances, one of which is called histamine. Histamine causes the tiny capillaries in the infected area to expand ... stimulating increased blood flow into the area. The blood carries white cells and antibodies that attack the virus. (It also warms the area somewhat, impeding viral reproduction.) As blood bathes the infected area, the throat becomes red and raw. Enlarged capillaries press on nearby nerves to "tell" the brain you have a sore throat.

Meanwhile, some of the fluid in the extra blood that has been brought to the infected area drains out of the capillaries and into the "nasopharynx," the area behind the mouth where the nose and throat join. This fluid mixes with mucus to produce the runny nose and stuffed-up feeling usually associated with colds.

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