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.
Cold sufferers feel sluggish because the virus slows the body's metabolic rate, which cools it and promotes viral reproduction. Fever, on the other hand, increases metabolism ... promotes healing by spurring the elimination of dead cells and the creation of new ones ... and raises the body's heat to beyond the most fertile range for viral reproduction.
In other words, your system fights a cold by raising its temperature and drawing blood into the infected area. Grandma's home remedies enhance this natural process.
Bundling up and resting in bed keep you warm and increase the blood flow to the skin surface. These treatments also promote relaxation. When the body experiences stress, it releases a hormone called cortisol, one of the effects of which is inhibition of antibody production. As the body relaxes, cortisol levels decrease and the system produces more antibodies to fight the infection.
Drinking warm liquids is doubly helpful. Such beverages raise the temperature of the throat and add fluids to the body. As your temperature rises to fight a cold, your body fluids evaporate faster than usual. Hot drinks replace the fluids and promote capillary expansion. (Acidic liquids, like orange juice and lemon tea, provide extra help by acidifying the throat. Cold viruses cannot survive an acid environment.)
Recent research has also shown that vitamin A promotes healing and that infections deplete the body's supply of the substance. Cod liver oil may taste terrible, but it's loaded with this essential nutrient. The medicinal value of garlic has long been controversial, but the aromatic flavoring also contains several vitamins and minerals important to the healing process.
Catching a cold is one way your system tells you to slow down for a few days. Trust your body. Listen to it. Don't fight it with "cold formulas" that promise symptomatic relief. The symptoms may be unpleasant, but they are part of the body's healing process.
Most commercial cold medicines are combinations of antihistamines, aspirin or aspirin substitutes, and caffeine (which is thrown in to counteract the drowsiness that's induced by antihistamines). Remember that damaged cells release histamine, which brings white blood cells and antibodies into the fray against the virus.
Antihistamines may help dry up a runny nose, but by doing so they hinder the body's fight against the virus. Too many people swallow aspirin and aspirin substitutes with reckless abandon because these are nonprescription drugs and presumably "safe." The drugs have a place in some medicine cabinets, but they have many side effects—some of which are quite serious—and should be used with caution. Pregnant women, for example, should avoid cold preparations, because they contain aspirin (which has been linked to miscarriages) plus caffeine (which has been linked to birth defects).
Cold sufferers who take pills in order to continue their daily routines not only ignore their bodies' signals to rest, but also are likely to spread the virus. And that's just fine with the manufacturers of cold preparations, whose products now gross about $500 million a year. The firms want the infection to spread, because more illnesses mean more sales!
So the next time you feel a cold coming on, forget the pills and take your grandmother's advice: Climb into bed, bundle up, rest, relax, and drink plenty of hot liquids. You might also pick up a copy of Cold Comfort by Hal Z. Bennett (Yolla Bolly Press/Clarkson N. Potter, 1979). It's a wonderful book, and the source of much of the information in this article. I reread it every time I come down with a cold.
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