A cold in a bottle

My friend Jen claims that the trick to get rid of colds is to drink plenty of orange juice. We call it “The Gold Treatment”: lock yourself in your room as soon as the symptoms start and gulp down a glass of cheap orange juice (Sainsbury’s basics is ideal) every half-an-hour or so. “You will feel a lot better the next day”, she always says. But a few days ago I read an article on the NY Times that may prove Jen wrong.


image credit: Sainsbury’s (publicity not intended)

First and foremost: did you know it is possible to create cold symptoms without the cold virus? (OK, maybe the MDs and biologists amongst you knew of this already, but the astrophysicist here is pretty fascinated about this.) It all has to do with the way the cold virus works, or so I learnt from the article. The symptoms felt during a cold are due to our own immune response to the virus and not the virus itself. The cells in our body release chemicals, called inflammatory mediators, as a response to the infection. Those mediators are the ones responsible for the sore throat, the runny nose, the sneezing and the body aches associated to the common cold. So by giving a mix of inflammatory mediators to a virus-free body, you can create the cold symptoms.

The author of the article goes on (although without citing any scientific study). If you get sick when you get the cold virus and markedly reveal cold symptoms, it may mean that you have a strong immune system. It seems contrary to the common sense expectation but it does make sense, once you think about it. Being susceptible to cold symptoms simply means that your body is capable of releasing a decent amount of inflammatory mediators to fight the virus.

Therefore, claims that vitamin C and other immune-system boosters are beneficial for the prevention and treatment of colds are controversial. If manifesting a cold is a sign of a strong immune system, then making it stronger by taking such remedies won’t necessary alleviate the cold symptoms, quite the opposite. And although the NY Times author doesn’t cite any scientific articles on this, the BBC Health website also informs that there is scant evidence on the benefits of vitamin C to treat and prevent colds.

I think “The Gold Treatment” would be just as effective if you were drinking water instead of orange juice. Jen, do you care to try that next time you have a cold?


2 thoughts on “A cold in a bottle

  1. Josh Wilfong

     Hey Barbara, you are right there is some evidence that Vitamin C can increase the severity of common cold symptoms, but there is a touch that indicates it may decrease duration of symptoms by a day or so.  
    Zinc has a bit of supporting evidence as well, but overall is not as well established
    Ironically enough, both are more beneficial than antibiotics, which are every patient’s expectation of treatment.  Over 99% of cold-like symptoms are due to viruses and after 5-7 days of symptoms, the common time cutoff to start antibiotic treatment, viruses are still responsible in >97%.


  2. Barbara Ferreira

    Thanks for the comment Josh. When it comes to writing about health, it is always useful to have an actual MD giving insight on the matter (even more so if the comment is accompanied by links to proper scientific studies)!


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