Sally Engelhart | Remedying beliefs about natural meds
Scientifically Blonde | Should you invest in homeopathic cold treatments?
December 1, 2011, 1:32 am·
Going home over Thanksgiving break is never always fun. This year, though, I was pretty pumped to spend some time with my bro, who recently moved back into my parents’ house (can you imagine?). But the second I got home I wanted him to stay far, far away.
He had a cold — a nasty one.
I knew that I absolutely could not afford to get sick right now (papers, finals, formals — you name it). In an effort to thwart this particularly threatening rhinovirus, I found myself preemptively reaching for homeopathic cold preventions and remedies.
But when I went to the drug store, I was met with shelf upon shelf of homeopathic cold supplements. Vitamin C, Zicam, echinacea, Airborne, Cold FX.
I asked the guy standing next to me if he ever used natural cold remedies. “No,” he said plainly, adding, “Do they work?”
I found myself wondering the same thing.
So I did some digging and looked at the scientific studies behind these so-called cold remedies and found myself disappointed by the weak results. Don’t be fooled: when you hear of a product that claims to be backed by clinical trials, you might not be aware of all the other trials that found the product ineffective. And “successful” cold remedies, on the whole, don’t reduce cold symptoms in an impressive way.
Let’s start with the classic — good ole’ vitamin C. The first bit of disappointing news is that it doesn’t look like vitamin C is going to stop your cold once it’s started. That said, there is some evidence that taking vitamin C regularly can shorten the duration of your cold by 8 percent in adults or can make you 66 percent less likely to get three or more colds in five years.
Personally, these findings about vitamin C don’t knock my socks off — 8 percent of a week-long cold is only half a day. But let’s be real, Welch’s fruit snacks are so effing good, I’ll eat them for vitamin C just in case.And what about our fave herbal supplement, echinacea? Does it work to combat colds? Well, long story short — probably not. In a RDBPC (randomized double blind placebo controlled, duh!) study, echinacea was no better than a placebo was at treating colds. Thumbs down for echniacea.
So, it didn’t pass the clinical trials, but some people think echinacea still might have a slight effect in some people, and it won’t hurt you if you want to take it.
The same cannot be said about our friend Airborne. Airborne is a mix of “immune boosting” vitamins and minerals, including a whack-load of vitamin C and vitamin A.
The vitamin C’s cool and is probably the only reason Airborne seems to work at all, but that vitamin A is not cool. One dose of Airborne gives you 100 percent of your daily value of vitamin A, and Airborne wants you to take it three times a day.
If you take too much vitamin C, you pee it out. NBD. But if you take too much vitamin A, you store it in your fat, and it can be toxic — making you nauseous, dizzy and, in the long run, it can damage your liver and weaken your bones.
So, if you’re going to take something every day to ward off colds, Airborne is not the stuff. Make a habit out of taking it, and you can make yourself sick.
And then there’s Zicam, which I myself have taken many times. I was impressed by the clinical trials — boasted on Zicam packaging — supporting the efficacy of zinc lozenges at treating colds. What’s not plastered on the packaging is that there are also studies that find zinc ineffective at treating colds. So, it might work a little, but it might not work at all.
And because zinc tastes like crap and makes you nauseous, I’m not sure that “maybe” is good enough here.
I guess I knew that there is no “cure for the common cold,” but I was hopeful that these herbal remedies would help more than the literature indicates they do. If you are diligent enough to take vitamin C every day, and you can man up to nauseating zinc lozenges when you start getting sick, you might be able to shave something like a day off your cold.
But for the rest of us lazy, wimpy people, I’m sorry for ruining the placebo effect you were all likely enjoying — it seems like we’re stuck masking our cold symptoms with quarts of Dayquil.
Sally Engelhart is a College senior from Toronto. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Scientifically Blonde appears every other Thursday.