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A bad case of the sniffles: The irritation of the common cold

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Peter Sherwood has caught a cold. Why, he asks, would Mother Nature devote her energies to a virus that achieves so little, and irritates so much?

I’ve got a cold. Or it’s got me. I’m not complaining, just exasperated that this viral infectious disease chose me before moving randomly on. I’m really not that special, unlike the cold which it’s a mistake to call ‘common.’ In fact, it’s not as everyday as we might imagine. There are more than 200 strains, all with pretty much the same rotten symptoms. I’m curious why evolution would bother mutating something hundreds of times for the same head-exploding results.

Seems like millions of years of trial and error is designed, not to kill or maim or cure, but to annoy. Maybe Darwin knew the answer but I can’t ask him, he’s presently deceased. More bewildering is the ridiculous range of stuff pretending to make the snuffles easier to bear.

Placebos and phony afflictions

I’ve had a cold often enough to know that all these creatively promoted medications are useless – a placebo at best. But then look around the pharmacy at the hundreds of items needing no doctor’s prescription and the epithet ‘placebo’ is being generous. Yet, placebos are proven to work for some ailments, while remaining a magical mystery to medicine. And what if our illnesses were imagined in the first place – a bogus cure for a phony affliction.

Fakes are never advertised as such because buying sugar pills might be viewed as dumb. And doctors who have a modicum of faith in inactive substances can’t prescribe them. Not only because they would be run out of town. To recommend a placebo would eliminate its possible unconscious effect. If I know I’m embarking on something that will do me no good whatsoever, chances are I’ll be right. A bit like voting in a national election.

Placebos abound. Take fashion, for example (take it all as far as I’m concerned). Hot new gear can bring the desired effect for a few days. But the latest outfit has never changed one’s life for the better, or cured anyone of a shopping addiction.

But back to boring you into submission with my minor health concerns. It still rankles: Science does not really understand how we catch a cold and has even less idea of how it disappears. We do know that it spreads itself around, which is not exactly helpful.

As for weird faux cures and relief, first prize goes to the old English ‘dirty sock’ method. It called for greasing your throat with lard or chicken fat and then placing dirty socks around it. Treatment may have induced sweating, which was believed to help rid the body of germs. The socks also likely identified people with serious throat ailments and warned others to steer clear.

Given the choice, I´ll take this more enlightened cold remedy: In Domestic Medicine: Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimens and Simple Medicines (1798), Dr Buchan recommends drinking alcohol until you see double.


Peter Sherwood has lived in DB for 19 years. The former head of an international public relations firm, Peter is the author of 15 books and has written around 400 satirical columns for the South China Morning Post.


Photo courtesy of www.all-free-download.com

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