To heck with those clinical trials! They take perfectly good cold remedies like zinc lozenges and vitamin C supplements that many of us swear help relieve our colds and tell us that they're utterly worthless. Today, echinacea's on the chopping block. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine finds that the herbal remedy -- that has immune-boosting effects -- is no more effective than a placebo at shortening the duration of a cold.
That leaves me with ever dwindling options as I battle a three-week long cold. Some time ago, I went to my doctor, and she sent me for a chest X-ray. No pneumonia, but she still insisted I take a 5-day course of antibiotics, explaining that I could have a sinus infection. I knew I didn't, since I've had one before and didn't feel like I was suffocating in my own stuffiness this time. (Yes, I know it's time to switch practices, if only I could find one that was accepting new patients.)
Like practically everyone else these days, I have a simple and seemingly never-ending cold. The antibiotics, of course, didn't work since they fight only bacterial infections, not viruses. But my certain belief that the drugs wouldn't work probably negated whatever placebo effect they would have conferred. Now I've lost my belief in the herb and decided to trash the dropper bottle of echinacea extract sitting in my medicine cabinet. Probably just as well, since it expired in 2004.
The University of Wisconsin study compared echinacea pills with placebos randomly given to more than 700 volunteers on the first day they reported cold symptoms and for another four days. The average length of the colds, about 7 days, didn't differ between the groups, nor among those in the study who weren't given any pills.
"This is a good study," says Adriane Fugh-Berman, a physician and associate professor in the complementary and alternative medicine master's degree program at Georgetown University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study. "It doesn't look like echinacea has any sort of significant effect on shortening colds."
Fugh-Berman tells me she chews on vitamin C supplements every two hours when she has a cold because they have a mild antihistamine effect that dries up her nasal passages without making her feel drowsy. Makes her feel better, but vitamin C hasn't been shown to actually prevent or shorten colds when tested in rigorous studies.
Surely, though, there's something we can do to make our colds go away faster or, better yet, prevent them altogether?
"The short answer is no," says Jeffrey Linder, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who treats a lot of colds and flu this time of year. Certain prescription medicines can help relieve severe symptoms, though there's little evidence, Linder says, that over-the-counter cough medicine does any good. He sometimes prescribes albuterol, an asthma medicine, to open clogged airways that come with lung congestion. And he'll prescribe a cough syrup with codeine to help quiet coughs at night. Nasal decongestants can also be helpful, but Linder doesn't recommend using them beyond three days to avoid becoming dependent on them.
Still, he's not ready to back-away from commonsense lifestyle measures when it comes to preventing colds.
- Sleep, at least 8 hours. Or however long your body needs. "Listen to you body," Linder says. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day and allow your body to wake up on its own. Research suggests that those who don't get enough sleep are more likely to be infected with colds when exposed to viruses.
- Exercise. Exercise has an immune-boosting effect, but don't overdo it to the point of exhaustion. That could overstress your body and actually suppress your immune system.
- Eat right. "Do what your mother told you," he says. "Eat a balanced diet, a lot of fruits and vegetables, not too much saturated fat." This should, in theory, keep your immune system in full-functioning mode, better able to fend off viral invasions.
- Wash hands frequently. This should help keep you from transferring cold viruses that you pick up from surfaces to your eyes, nose, and mouth, where they'll enter your body.
So is there sound science to suggest that doing all these things will ensure you'll never get a cold? Not exactly, admits Linder. We may just have to accept the fact that we'll average about two to four colds a year that will translate into about a month of aggravation.
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