Colds and flu

Updated 15 August 2016

Why there's no cure for the common cold

Millions of people worldwide go for their yearly 'flu shot', so why is there no vaccination for the common cold?

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The common cold is the most frequent disease humans suffer from, and most people get a cold at least once or twice a year. 

A cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract and is characterised by fever, coughing and sneezing, sore throat and a runny nose. (Fever in colds is usually below 37.8°C.) There are many virus strains that can cause colds, the most common of which are rhinoviruses.

An illness can be approached in three ways:

1. "An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.'' This means that the best way to deal with e.g. a cold is to avoid getting one in the first place.

2. If, however, you're unfortunate enough to become ill, the best way to deal with the situation is to eliminate the cause of the disease, or, in other words, cure it.

3. But if the disease can't be cured (or just needs to run its course), the only option you're left with is to treat the symptoms and make yourself as comfortable as possible.

Keep your immune system strong

A good way to avoid getting a cold is to stay away from cold viruses. This is achieved by avoiding contact with anyone who might be contagious. It is also good to wash your hands regularly, especially after spending time in public areas.

Read: The dangers of not washing your hands

The best way to stay healthy, though, is to make sure your immune system is strong enough to ward off those cold viruses.

According to Harvard Medical School, the best way to keep your immune system strong and healthy is to abide by the following general good-health guidelines: 

- Don’t smoke.

- Eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and low in saturated fat.

- Exercise regularly.

- Maintain a healthy weight.

- Control your blood pressure.

- Drink alcohol only in moderation.

- Get enough sleep.

- Take steps to avoid infection. 

- Get regular medical screening tests.

Can one cure a cold?

Many people believe that antibiotics can cure a cold. This is wrong, because colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria, so antibiotics will have no effect. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology on 200 young adults with common colds showed that bacterial infections were rare, supporting the concept that the common cold is almost exclusively a viral disease.

Furthermore, taking antibiotics when you don’t need them can also lead to antibiotic resistance.

Read: Too many South African doctors still prescribing too many antibiotics

What about a ‘cold shot’?

By creating immunity against a particular disease, vaccination prevents us from getting that disease. It is therefore more of a preventative measure than a cure.

Millions of people take their yearly flu shot, but cold vaccinations have proven not to be a feasible option and a Cochrane review has found a lack of evidence on the effects of vaccines for the common cold in healthy people.

According to Thomas Smith, PhD, from the University of Texas, there are over 100 serotypes of rhinovirus virus, making it unlikely that there will ever be a traditional vaccine for the common cold using conventional vaccine methods.

Also, having a cold may be a nuisance, but it is not a serious or life-threatening disease, which is why it is not high on the list of diseases that have to be cured. 

Currently the best bet for an anti-cold medicine may be something called broad-spectrum antivirals, which would target a number of different viruses. This research is however in its infancy. In 2011 Draper Laboratory in Cambridge developed a compound called Draco, which "is designed to treat or prevent infections by a broad spectrum of viruses, just as existing antibiotics can treat or prevent infections by a broad spectrum of bacteria".

Treating a cold

Here are a few examples of home remedies that may or may not make you feel better:

- Herbs like echinacea, goldenseal and ginseng

- Ginger, honey and garlic

- Chicken soup

- Probiotics

- Gargling with salt water to ease a sore throat

- Humidity

- "Vapor rub" to open up air passages

- Taking a warm bath

Zinc and vitamin C?

There are studies that confirm that zinc gluconate lozenges are effective for treating the common cold. One randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study found that zinc gluconate in the form and dosage studied significantly reduced the duration of symptoms of the common cold.

Nobel Prize winner, Linus Pauling, was almost single-handedly responsible for the belief that vitamin C could significantly decrease the incidence of the common cold. This gave rise to the controversial belief that large doses of vitamin C could reduce the risk of catching a cold as well as reduce its severity and duration.

From a medical point of view, it is therefore safe to say that there is no cure for the common cold, and apart from not getting a cold in the first place, once you've got it, there’s currently no getting rid of it. The only option that remains is to wait for the illness to run its course and to treat the symptoms as effectively as possible. 

Read more:

Cold or flu?

In bed with a cold?

Could vitamin C therapy cure a cold?

 

Ask the Expert

Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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