Can we really save ourselves from catching a cold?
Day one back teaching and I’m in a stuffy room full of snuffles, smothered coughs, and startled sneezes. And that’s just the teacher training day. I make a mental note to pick up some echinacea tea on my way home to ward off the inevitable cold I’m going to catch. But my head fills with new deadlines and specification changes and I forget. A week later I’m snuffling with the rest of them. I curse myself for not taking more care to avoid getting ill so early in the term, but would it really have made any difference if I’d bought that tea?
Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases
‘You need some Manuka honey’, a colleague advises me as I
splutter into two layers of Mansize tissues. ‘I make sure I eat a spoonful a
day. Like medicine. It works, I’m hardly ever ill. Are you low in vitamin C? Do
you eat oranges?’ Clearly, I could have done more planning before throwing
myself back into badly ventilated rooms with swirling germs. Perhaps I should
have spent August and September eating oranges and honey and popping vitamins.
Now I’m tired and my face aches. I’d only brought some hand sanitiser. And only
because it was still in my bag from last term.
According to the NHS website, you are infectious a few days before the symptoms of your cold begin and you remain infectious until your symptoms end. Coughs and sneezes contain the virus which can live on hands, clothing and door handles for 24 hours. If your daily workspace involves lots of sneezy people moving around from room to room, it’s hard to see how you’d escape catching a cold no matter how many prevention methods you deploy. But let’s have a look at some of the suggestions.
Vitamin C or Eat More Oranges
A 2017 study by the University of Helsinki found that increased vitamin C intake was associated with a shorter period of illness for people afflicted with the common cold. This suggests that taking a lot of vitamin C can help you get over a cold much faster than usual. However, this was a clinical trial with controlled dosages of 6-8g of vitamin C per day. The guidelines on supplements usually recommend one tablet a day of 1000mg (1g) with warnings not to exceed this, so the high level of vitamin C intake required for an effect doesn’t seem to be something you can safely do without clinical supervision. To put this further into context, an orange contains about 50mg of vitamin C, so to get 6g of vitamin C, you’d have to eat 120 oranges. According to Public Health England, there are other fruit and vegetables that have greater vitamin C content than oranges: blackcurrants, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, curly kale, horseradish, lemon peel, parsley, both sweet and chilli peppers, and spring greens. A handful of West Indian cherries has the greatest vitamin C content at 1720mg. So there are other options if you want a natural source for your vitamin C boost. But does consuming vitamin C prevent colds? There’s no evidence it helps prevention, but it may improve your immune system so that you don’t feel utterly dreadful and you get better faster.
Manuka Honey or the Magical Every-Cure
Manuka honey is a popular and expensive alternative medicine. Research has found that it may help with infected wounds. In 2011, Professor Rose Cooper found that honey can interfere with the growth of bacteria by preventing bacteria from attaching to biological tissues. However, it’s generally used as a topical agent to treat infections rather than something you eat or stir into your tea. Also, the common cold is caused by a virus rather than bacteria so Manuka honey shouldn’t work in the same way. It seems to have antibiotic properties; while antibiotics treat bacterial infections, they can’t treat viruses. This means that Manuka honey won’t be able to cure your cold. It might sooth your throat though, like any other (cheaper) kind of honey.
I used to drink at least one cup of echinacea tea a day to ward of colds and flu. I really believed in it. And it totally seemed to work. However, there is no evidence that echinacea can prevent colds or flu. In several studies, echinacea was no more effective than a placebo. However, it does seem to stimulate the immune system in some way. Perhaps this means it increases the body’s effectiveness in fighting any infections but doesn’t have a direct effect on the cold virus. And does it even matter? Recent research from 2018 has suggested that placebos do actually have a positive effect even if you know you’re taking them. So as long as you can trick your brain into making you feel better, maybe these natural cold ‘cures’ can be useful.
In the end I buy two packets of paracetamol, two packets of
cough sweets, a box of Mansize tissues, and resolve to get as much sleep as I
can – I use an extra pillow to prop my head up at night. After a few days, I’m
back to normal bar a few sniffles and I somehow manage not to pass it on to my
family. I think that’s thanks to the hand sanitiser.
I bump into my Manuka honey eating colleague. ‘How are you?’ I ask. ‘A bit sniffy’. She’s rueful. ‘I’ve caught the college cold. I know, it’s karma for giving you that advice…’
Image courtesy of Myriam Zilles via Pixabay