When I was but knee-high to a grasshopper and succumbed to bouts of childhood ailments, my mother would summon the local GP. After he had pressed the cold stethoscope to my chest and back and had me cough and cough, my mother, fearing the worst, would say: “Well, Dr Dolan, what is it?”
He would say: “Germs, Mrs Hopkins, germs. Just keep him in bed a day or two and give him plenty of ice cream. Germs.”
Ice cream, plenty of ice cream? Boy, was it great back then to feel poorly, as my grandaunt was wont to say of any illness.
Before antibiotics revolutionised medicine, germs covered a multitude of ailments and all manner of bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
Today, antibiotics, though perhaps controversial the more we learn, can be argued to be a panacea. But they cannot cure the common cold, that annual bug that besets many of us as winter approaches. You can get a jab at your local GP to ward off influenza or pneumonia but a cure for the common cold still eludes medical science.
The common cold has the twin distinction of being both the world’s most widespread infectious disease and one of the most elusive. The name is a problem, for starters. In almost every Indo-European language, one of the words for the disease relates to low temperature, yet experiments have shown that low temperature neither increases the likelihood of catching a cold, nor the severity of symptoms.
Then there is the common part, which seems to imply that there is a single, indiscriminate pathogen or microorganism at large. My local GP tells me that more than 200 viruses provoke cold-like illness, each one deploying its own peculiar strategy to evade the body’s defences.
It is hard to think of another disease that inspires the same level of collective resignation. The common cold slinks through homes and schools, towns, and cities, making people miserable for a few days without warranting much afterthought. Adults, reportedly, suffer an average of between two and four colds each year, and children up to 10, and we have come to accept this as part and parcel of life.
Our common-or-garden understanding remains a jumble of mumbo-jumbo, folklore, and false assumption. The most common beliefs about how to treat the disease have turned out to be false. Dubious efficacy has done little to deter humankind from formulating remedies. The Ebers Papyrus, a medical document from ancient Egypt dated to 1550BC, advises a cold sufferer to recite an incantation, in association with the administration of milk of one who has borne a male child, and fragrant gum.
Today, winter remedy sales here reach about 2.5m each year, though most over-the-counter products have not actually been proven to work. Some contain paracetamol, an effective analgesic, but the dosage is often miniscule. Taking Vitamin C in regular doses does little to ward off the bug. Hot toddies, medicated tissues and immune system boosts of ginger, or the like, are equally ineffective.
It would seem the only failsafe means of avoiding a cold is to live in complete isolation from the rest of humanity.
Although modern science has changed the way medicine is practised in almost every field, it has so far failed to produce any radically new treatments for colds. The difficulty is that, while all colds feel much the same, from a biological perspective the only common feature of the various viruses that cause such is that they have adapted to enter and damage the cells that line our respiratory tract. This makes a catch-all treatment extremely tricky to formulate.
As Dr Dolan told my mother all those years ago, you just must let it take its course.
Grin and bear it.