The Life Doctor

WINTER STARTED this week. And the weaker ones among us have already succumbed to the first cold.

"I started sniffing yesterday," says one hypochondriac. "It's the change of the season. This will carry on until April."

The average adult has three colds a year. Yet the average scientist can do nothing about it. "We can't cure the cold because it's so ubiquitous," says Sherif Mossad at the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Ohio, and author of a recent paper on the subject in the British Medical Journal. "There are hundreds of 'serotypes' so there is not a specific therapy you could use to attack it.

"The only thing that has been shown to work is zinc [possibly because it stops the rhinovirus binding to the body]. You should start taking zinc tablets the moment the symptoms start. That may help. But we're not sure what is a safe level."

Steam inhalation has been shown to be effective in two studies but not in others. Over-the-counter cold remedies containing varying amounts of aspirin, paracetamol, ibuprofen and decongestant might relieve symptoms. Some studies suggest that vitamin C can reduce the symptoms by up to 23 per cent.

Since none of the treatments is scientifically proven to get rid of a cold any quicker than throwing a frog over your shoulder and shouting "cold begone!" what you need is a strategy you believe in. Life Doctor surveyed the British public and discovered three different approaches.

1) Blast it: attack is the best form of defence, 53 per cent of respondents thought. Outsmart and out-dose your virus. Treat it like getting snowed in for the winter. Buy up Vaseline (for lips and nose), multi-box soft tissues and eucalyptus rub, knock-out night treatments and slow-release daytime treatments. Contact 400, Night-Nurse, Beechams powder, Solpadeine and Sudafed were all popular. But Lemsip came out favourite. "Because it tastes horrible," said one respondent. "It feels medicinal." And don't forget complementary strategies. Curry is popular, in particular a Thai soup called Tom Yum, which contains chillies, ginger and garlic. Strong alcohol is favoured by 25 per cent of respondents. A classic blaster, John, 32, said: "I have a very hot bath, four Nurofen, and a very strong G & T (95 per cent gin, one per cent lemon, one per cent ice, and three per cent tonic). I then sleep for 48 hours. When I wake up, I am cured." Doctors don't recommend alcohol or curry (or indeed overdosing on Nurofen, readers), but Mossad says that anything that numbs the system (like hot curry) relieves the symptoms "and alcohol helps you sleep".

2) Ignore it: 20 per cent of respondents are annoyingly stiff-upper- lip. "I have no sympathy for people who take time off with a cold," said one. "You don't have to give in. You can overcome it." Actually ignorers don't overcome colds any quicker than anyone else, they just think they do. "Psychological factors would influence how badly you think you are affected, and so how bad you feel," agrees Professor Phil Evans, director of the Psychophysiology and Stress research group at Westminster University. If you can say, "I am not ill" and believe it you may feel better.

3) Indulge it: 27 per cent believe a cold is an opportunity for self- indulgence. One said, "lemon and honey. Hot baths with bath salts and hot water bottles. Boiled eggs with soldiers, hot ribena and warmed jim- jams, wrapped up in a duvet in front of weepy films for at least two days - brings it all out. No point struggling on."

Alternatively, try and avoid colds altogether. Eat healthily, take exercise, get plenty of sleep, don't get overstressed, stay happy (people who have poor social support get ill more often), and, above all, avoid snogging people with runny noses.

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