The common cold as we know it has been with humans for thousands of years.
How far are we today in treating and curing our common seasonal colds in relation to olden times, for example, in ancient Greece, Rome or the Middle Ages? In many ways we have got far in understanding our body’s functioning and its needs. However, in some ways, the old methods of diagnosis would not be out of place in a modern doctor’s surgery, and some of the natural cures of Greek doctors resemble home remedies are still in use today.
From ancient Greece to medieaval Europe, blood-letting, leeches and more resilient treatments like chicken soup have all been used in attempts to aid recovery.
But though our understanding of the viruses that cause colds has improved over time, and with it our remedies, a cure remains as elusive as ever.
The advice given by doctors to patients suffering from colds may be similar and well known – rest, drink lots of fluid, take moderate doses of painkiller and respiratory relief remedies to ameliorate the symptoms.
According to Prof Ronald Eccles of Cardiff’s Common Cold Centre, colds have been with us since humans gathered in any sort of community – at least since the Iron Age onwards.
Early thinkers believed cold symptoms were caused by the penetration of low temperatures into the body and warm drinks were used to treat this.
The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who pioneered the practice of clinical observation, believed colds were caused by a build-up of waste matter on the brain.Their understanding was that illness had natural causes, and, therefore looked for natural cures, using natural substances such as garlic, vinegar and honey. Greek doctors said that nature is the best healer.
Chicken soup was hailed as a treatment as early as AD60 by a Roman surgeon and it was recommended as “an excellent food as well as medication” by 12th Century physicians. In fact, they were not so far wide of the mark – modern studies have demonstrated that chicken contains an amino acid, cysteine, which has mild decongestant proprieties.
In the past the idea of catching cold was that it was about getting wet, getting it in the rain, getting a chill, being out in the cold weather. For this reason, bathing was discouraged for cold sufferers.
These notions were eventually dispelled by Benjamin Franklin, the noted polymath, scientist and Founding Father of the United States, who conducted studies into the common cold and concluded that it was transmitted through the air between individuals.
Finding a cure for common cold may never have been achieved, but new knowledge deepened as well as scientific understanding of the condition, isolating coronaviruses and rhinoviruses, two of the most frequent causes of colds.
Why is a cure of cold unlikely? One of the answers is that the common cold is not a single disease but caused by up to 200 different viruses. By the time the symptoms – caused by the body’s immune system reacting to these viruses – present, it would be too late for an antivirus.