IS there anyone who has never overheard the complaint that "they can cure a lot of things, but they can't cure the common cold"? The slightly reproachful tone with which the complaint is uttered suggests that "they" are not really trying very hard, that "they" could find a cure for it if "they" really wanted to.
But there is also just a hint of satisfaction, too, because we don't want "them" to know everything and get swollen heads. We do not want "them" to pluck out the heart of every mystery. We want our illnesses, provided they are not too serious, to elude their understanding.
The incurability of the common cold is our secret weapon against the pretensions to omniscience of the medical profession. The common cold humbles the doctor.
But all that might now change. A study by the Common Cold Centre in Cardiff has found that the popular cold remedy echinacea can not only prevent colds, but also shorten them once they start.
If you take three daily doses for four months, your chances of catching a cold and the length of time you spend with it decline by 26%, or 60% if you are particularly susceptible to colds. Whether the benefit is large enough for people to take echinacea three times a day for four months is something for each person to decide – no answer is right for everyone.
These findings are not unexpected. A study from the University of Connecticut published in 2007 found that people who took a preparation of echinacea reduced the number of colds from which they suffered by 60% and, if they did catch cold, the illness lasted 1.4 days less.
It is only honest to point out, however, that other trials – for example, one led by a researcher from the University of Virginia in 2005 – have been negative. Further research is needed.
If it turns out that echinacea really is valuable both as a prophylactic and a treatment, there will be rejoicing among enthusiasts of alternative medicine, for it will vindicate folk wisdom as a source of medical knowledge.
Echinacea is extracted from a North American genus of plants of that name. Apparently, it was used by native Indians as a cure for a variety of conditions including snakebite.
According to Stanford University physician Wallace Sampson, who has an interest in alternative medicines, echinacea was first marketed for use against colds by a Swiss herbalist who had been told (mistakenly) that American Indians took it for that purpose.
In fact, several medical advances have resulted from doctors conducting experiments on folk remedies about which they had heard. William Withering discovered the use of digitalis in this way, and Edward Jenner the use of cowpox innoculation – which eventually led to the elimination of smallpox. But it is science that is required to distinguish between folk wisdom and folk superstition. Why can't we be immunised against colds as we can against, say, measles or yellow fever?
Colds are caused by hundreds of strains of viruses, and immunity against one strain does not confer immunity against the others – which is why, according to American immunological data, elementary schoolchildren suffer from three to eight colds a year, and adults two or three.
Let us suppose for a moment that further scientific tests on echinacea show that, contrary to the hopes raised, it really does not work either to prevent or to cure colds: will that be the end of its career?
By no means. We each – man, woman or child – spend about R140 a year on cold remedies, most of which we know perfectly well will not shorten the duration of our colds – which, incidentally, are responsible for about 50% of time lost at work through illness, showing that colds are more economically than medically significant.
But we are temperamentally incapable of saying to ourselves when ill, "There is nothing I can do about it," and some of the remedies give us symptomatic relief, if only by making us drowsy.
In my childhood I was given various disgusting concoctions of hot milk and honey for my colds. These days I prefer pills – provided that I can't taste them.
The desire to take medicine, said the great 19th-century physician Sir William Osler, is what best distinguishes man from the animals. This is despite the fact that his near contemporary, Oliver Wendell Holmes, said that if the whole of the pharmacopoeia were thrown into the sea, it would be better for humanity but worse for the fish. The mere uselessness, or even harmfulness, of medicine has never prevented mankind from taking it. – The Daily Telegraph