For years, at the first sign of the approach of cold season, John Musumeci would break out the zinc and vitamin C tablets.
But this year, like many other Americans, he’s decided his money might be better spent elsewhere.
“I just didn’t see that they did any good,” says the 57-year-old hardware store owner from Quinton, N.J. “I know when I drink chamomile tea I sleep better. And when I drink mint tea it settles my stomach. But with zinc and vitamin C, I figured why spend the money if I couldn’t see or feel any difference.”
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Musumeci’s got plenty of company. The percentage of Americans using alternative, or complementary, therapies for head and chest colds dropped from 9.5 percent in 2002 to 2.0 percent in 2007, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The decline in popularity of alternative cold meds comes in the wake of numerous studies over the last few years that have shown that some of the so-called immune-boosting supplements, such as echinacea or high doses of Vitamin C, really don't do much good. In addition, government agencies have been increasingly cracking down on unproven claims from supplement manufacturers. Just this month, Airborne Health Inc. agreed to stop running ads claiming that its over-the-counter pills could help prevent colds and boost the immune system, after being sued by consumers and the Federal Trade Commission.
That’s very good news, says Dr. Ronald Glick, medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh-Shadyside. “It means that people are reading about the science and it’s making sense to them and they’re responding appropriately.”
Dr. Neil Fishman, an infectious disease specialist and an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, doesn’t try to stop his patients from taking supplements, but advises caution when mixing them with other medications.
“The bottom line, is that I have not seen any good science showing that any of these supplements work, [although] that doesn’t mean they don’t,” Fishman says. “It’s fine if you want to take a supplement, so long as it doesn’t interact with any of the medications you’re already taking.”
Three to five days of misery
With the power of so many supplements called into question, what’s to be done about the common cold?
People in the United States suffer approximately 1 billion colds each year, according to the CDC, and most cases are caused by any of the dozens of rhinoviruses. Common upper respiratory infections don’t typically turn into anything more serious — except among the elderly or people with weakened immune systems who can develop serious lower respiratory infections such as pneumonia or bronchitis. Other germs, such as parainfluenza, can cause a severe lower respiratory infection in young children.
During the three to five days it takes your body to vanquish a cold, the irritating little invaders can make your life utterly miserable. Unfortunately, experts say, once you’re sick, there’s no better prescription than the one your mom gave you when you were growing up: Eat right, rest and drink plenty of fluids.
By resting and eating a healthy diet— lots of fruits and veggies — you’ll give your immune system a chance to concentrate on beating the bug. By drinking fluids, you’ll help your respiratory system clear virus particles by allowing more mucous to form, Fishman says.
“One of the ways the body fights off a cold virus is to mechanically expel the virus particles,” he explains. “The body mounts an inflammatory response in the upper airways and the little hairs in the nose – the cilia – actually push the virus out with the mucous.”
That’s where certain alternative therapies actually might help, Fishman says.
For example, chicken soup can ease symptoms. But, Fishman says, that’s only because the hot soup makes your nose run. In fact, anything that makes your nose run – like the mustard in a Chinese restaurant – will help drive the virus out of your body.
It’s better to focus on prevention, with hand washing at the top of the list, doctors say. And keep your distance from people who are obviously sick. Cold viruses are spread by touching an infected surface and then rubbing your eyes or nose, or by inhaling mucous drops full of cold germs from the air.
“If someone’s coughing, you don’t want to touch them,” says Dr. Larry Baraff, associate director of the Emergency Medicine Center at the Ronald Reagan University of California-Los Angeles Medical Center. “Seriously, that’s the way most of these colds are spread. When people cough, they cover their mouths with their hands. Then you shake hands with them.”
Although there’s no evidence you can get a cold from being exposed to frigid weather, it’s possible that stress or anxiety could make you more susceptible. While the connection between colds and stress hasn’t been studied yet, there is research showing that stress management can affect the immune system and fight cancer, Glick notes. “If stress management is effective enough to impact a disease like cancer, it probably would have an impact on colds, too,” he says.
Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.