Americans suffer from as many as a billion colds a year.
- National Center for Health Statistics
When the first cold day of the season arrived the same day my first piano student of the year stayed home because of a cold, I knew it was time to say something about that annual inconvenience, the common cold.
Trust me. With years of sniffling, sneezing experience, and a little help from the Old Farmer's Almanac, I now know as much as anyone else does about the cause and cure of the ubiquitous (an uncommon word meaning common) cold.
Colds are caused by cold weather, aren't they? Otherwise, they'd be called something else. At least that's the conclusion a man and his doctor made on a cold, rainy day in December, 1799.
After riding his horse most of the day, this particular man arrived home wet, cold and too hungry to change his clothes before dinner. A mistake, he thought, when during the night he developed chills, a sore throat and other signs of a cold. His wife summoned the doctor who prescribed gargles, inhalants, soaking his feet in hot water and tying a piece of flannel soaked in salve around his neck. Two days later the patient, former President George Washington, died.
Opinions vary about whether the father of our country died from the assumed cold or from untreated pneumonia or strep throat. But what is certain is that the treatment for a cold today hasn't varied much from the remedies Washington's doctor prescribed 200 years ago. That doesn't mean medical research has stopped looking for the common-cold cause, or that doctors and patients alike haven't experimented with more than a few remedies of their own.
One of the first rules of research is learning what conclusions to rule out, which is why modern medicine has discarded the following:
* 15th-century belief that "death by the way of a cold" was caused by going barefoot;
* Chills, drafts, or cold climates; more colds have been found in the general population than among volunteers subjected to chilly environments, soldiers sleeping in wet trenches, and Eskimos living near the Arctic circle, who were often cold-free until ships began arriving from warmer climates;
* Cold-weather months; it's not the temperature, but exposure to others who, like you, spend more time indoors where heated air dries out the protective mucus in the nasal passages, making it easier for one of 100 known cold viruses to take hold.
As for cold remedies, I report, you decide whether to try or discard the following:
* Chew on a honeycomb;
* Mix a cup molasses with a teaspoonful of ginger and a pinch of baking soda, and take one teaspoonful every hour;
* Place a mixture of cooked onions and butter on the throat and chest, or put onions alone in a cloth bag and wear around the neck;
* Men only; grow a thick mustache right up under the nose;
* Wash out the nose with hot water, soap, cod-liver oil, vapors of ammonia, and iodine;
* Roll up thinly pared orange peelings, inside out, and stuff them into the nostrils;
* To shorten the life of a cold, ear or sinus infection, don't blow your nose.
Understandably, anyone who has ever suffered from a cold is longing for a cure. However, even such a miserable cloud as the common cold may have a silver lining.
Consider the impact of so many colds on the economy. Yes, the National Center for Health Statistics tells us, Americans average an estimated 30 million lost workdays and as many lost schooldays in any given year because of a cold. But, that many Americans on that many days also spend more than a half-billion dollars a year on drugs and other medications to fight their affliction.
Ultimately, even doctors say, whatever a person believes cures a cold is the best medicine possible. Now you have another tenet to believe in. With every cold remedy you purchase, you can smile, pat your aching back and boast because you are helping cure America's ailing economy.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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