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Magnified: The Common Cold Is Still Incurable, But Science Isn’t Giving Up

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Magnified: The Common Cold Is Still Incurable, But Science Isn’t Giving Up

Anne Dennon

Anne Dennon

Technology and Finance Writer

8 min. read

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The wadded-up tissue paper. The bowl of chicken soup. The blanket as a shawl. The props that accompany the common cold are instantly recognizable because we get so many colds in our lifetime (the CDC says 2-3 per year as an adult and even more as a kid) — not to mention the ad industry has been pushing those props for decades.

We first explored the world of cold treatment in our review of cold medicine, where we analyzed over 450 medications (like Sudafed and Mucinex) that quell the typical pain points of a cold, like body aches or a sore throat. Those products only treat symptoms, of course, but homeopathic cold-shortening products go further, claiming to blunt a cold’s effect on your body, if not prevent it altogether. We investigated these modern-day elixirs, including Coldcalm, Zicam, Airborne. While we learned a lot, nothing in our findings contradicted what we already knew: There’s no cure for the common cold.

Like an infinitesimal version of cancer, the cold is pervasive and well-researched, yet eludes our control. For that, blame the over 200 viruses that cause it. They’re also the reason we catch colds again and again: Enduring one can inoculate you against that particular virus, but there are plenty of others going around.

Cures on the horizon

Up till now, scientists haven’t found success in tackling the cold. It’s kind of an inverse hydra—not one body with many heads, but many threats with a united outcome. Even the fact that we say “I have a cold” is telling. Not the cold, a cold. There are more lurking out there.

But that could all change in the next decade now that British scientists have identified a potential solution: Rather than target cold viruses themselves, which are numerous and can quickly evolve, a novel treatment targets the infrastructure within the body that the viruses rely on to thrive — N-myristoyltransferase, a protein in human cells. Cold viruses adopt this protein like hermit crabs co-opting new shells—it protects them and allows them to replicate. Inhibiting this protein stops cold viruses in their tracks.

In vitro testing of the inhibiting molecule has produced no toxic side effects, but it’s early days: researchers have yet to begin even animal testing, meaning human testing is years away and any effective treatment is even further out, if it happens at all. But the approach isn’t just a flight of fancy: Enzyme inhibition, the medical technique at work here, is behind the function of NSAID pain relievers. It also shows promise as an antifungal, antiparasitic, and anticancer agent. If testing pans out, enzyme inhibition could be useful beyond treating the common cold: Some of the same viruses are the culprits behind asthma flare-ups, polio, and hand-foot-and-mouth disease.

And enzyme inhibition isn’t the only line of cold research being done. Vaccines and antimicrobial peptides are also under investigation, approaches which seek to amp up natural immune responses to viruses while tip-toeing around the danger of creating more resistance strains.

Apex predator vs. common cold

Until there’s a cure for the cold, we have no choice but to turn to other treatments. Chief among them: homeopathic remedies, natural substances like plants and minerals delivered in small doses. They’re certainly popular: a reported 81% of adults in the U.S. use over-the-counter medication for minor ailments like colds and flu, according to IBISWorld.

Proof of such remedies’ efficacy is anecdotal at best. Cold-Eeze and Zicam rely on zinc; Coldcalm on a brew of onion, belladonna, and crushed honey bees (seriously); and Airborne relies on a heady dose of vitamins. Jennifer Ackerman, author of Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold told The New Yorker,

I view the common cold as a kind of revealing, quirky lens on how we see ourselves in the world, how we experience our own health and illness, how we view medical care, how impatient we are, how germaphobic, how gullible.

Claims of cold-shortening products tend to be incredibly vague (“immune-boosting!”). That’s not just marketing; sometimes they’re vague by court order. The more bombastic assertions of Zicam and Airborne—like “guaranteed cold fighting protection”—have been shot down by class action lawsuits. To avoid legal trouble, cold treatments rely on connotation, often via images of citrus fruits. Airborne leans heavily on its tagline, “Created by a schoolteacher!” taking a reverse-psychology approach by emphasizing its decidedly unscientific roots.

But taking any medication, whether to treat symptoms or to cut the sickness short, is a gamble. Multi-symptom cold medicines make it easy to inadvertently overdo it on blood-thinners or pain relievers, and decongestants can mess with your heartbeat. And too much of a given vitamin can quickly lead to gastrointestinal misery.

Maybe the aversion to such risks is what’s behind the rise of homeopathic treatments: Why wouldn’t you concoct a trail mix of promising pills and wash it down with Emergen-C? But even the connection between vitamin C and cold treatment hasn’t been corroborated by science. The renegade Nobel laureate Linus Pauling posited that high doses of vitamin C could combat plenty of illnesses, including the cold. But like garlic, ginseng, and echinacea, vitamin C only has a fighting chance in abbreviating the common cold if you’re taking it daily before symptoms hit.

Seasons of cold

Cold season peaks in early fall and mid spring, becoming a steady onslaught during winter months. The symptoms are mild and tend to self-resolve in a week, but you probably will have around 200 colds in your lifetime, and that has a massive impact on productivity.

In a national study, nearly 85% of participants experienced at least one cold in the past year, and half of that number lost a day or two of work as a result. According to an earlier study, this leads to a total cost of lost productivity of $25 billion in the U.S. alone… and that was in 2002. The common cold is the leaky faucet of health industry, and it might be pulling you away from work more than you think.

For now, the best approach is to think of a cold as an enforced naptime. Get some rest. The medical jury is still out on so many treatments, but at least one clinical trial has shown chicken soup can actually be effective. If you’re in need of more ammunition in your fight against colds, here’s the recipe the doctor used in that study (or rather, the doctor’s grandmother’s recipe, which makes it even more legit).

What about avoiding the cold entirely? While we don’t know if being physically cold actually contributes to catching cold, we do know that stress puts you at a higher risk, so setting aside some time to relax every day could help. And remember, the cold is a contagion that needs come into contact with your body to ail you. As is so often the case, the answer is keeping your hands to yourself.

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