London - When a cold strikes, you can cross ibuprofen off your shopping list. Researchers recently said it might make you worse.
The British Medical Journal reported that when people with respiratory tract infections such as colds, sore throats and chest and ear infections were given paracetamol, ibuprofen or a combination of the two, between 50 and 70 percent of those taking ibuprofen returned to their GP within a month with worsening symptoms.
This might be because ibuprofen reduces inflammation - and an inflammatory response is part of the body’s immune response to the infection.
But what about those other remedies everyone swears by for preventing and treating common ailments - will they make any difference, either?
We asked the experts for their view...
Use for: Treating colds and flu.
Known as ‘Jewish penicillin’, for centuries chicken soup has been thought to help relieve symptoms of cold and flu.
A study in the journal Chest in 2000 speculated that it helped prevent the movement of neutrophils - a form of immune cell - which cause some of the symptoms of a cold by stimulating the release of mucus.
More recently, a study in the American Journal of Therapeutics suggested chicken soup - or rather, the protein it contains - provides carnosine, a substance that increases the production of nitric oxide. This helps form chemicals that kill invading bugs.
EXPERT OPINION: “Protein is needed for the production of immune cells, but some chicken soups may have little protein in them,” says Catherine Collins, principal dietitian at St George’s Hospital, South-West London, adding: “You may as well have a glass of milk.
“A bowl of good chicken soup might provide some nutritional benefit - as well as protein, the chicken will give you zinc, also good for the immune function - and just the fluid itself can be helpful.
“But to say it will help you recover from a cold or flu is a step too far.”
Use for: Preventing and treating norovirus, colds and flu.
Probiotics (or “good” bacteria) and prebiotics (which encourage good bacteria to grow in the gut) are thought to have a preventative effect, as well as treating illnesses. A review by the respected Cochrane Library of 63 studies found probiotics could reduce the length of time people had a stomach bug, such as norovirus by a day. It’s thought good bacteria fight off harmful bacteria.
And a US study published in Paediatrics in 2009 found that giving children probiotic products twice a day reduced their incidence of colds and coughs and cut their absences from day nurseries by around a third compared with children given a dummy pill.
EXPERT OPINION: “Probiotics help improve the immune response,” says Professor Glenn Gibson, a microbiologist at Reading University.
“The majority of our immune defence is found in the gut wall and probiotics appear to boost the response from immune cells such as T cells and natural killer cells, which are part of the immune system.
“I think the evidence is most compelling for gut infections, but some studies found that taking probiotics speeds up the recovery from a cold by around a day.”
You can take probiotics (as supplements or in foods such as yoghurts) or prebiotics (as supplements or in food such as cereal).
Research from Reading University suggests oat-based cereals such as porridge may be another way to get prebiotics. “The active ingredient in porridge, beta glucan, can fortify beneficial bugs in the gut,” says Professor Gibson.
“Whether you take probiotics or prebiotics, the end point is the same. I take both. You need to take them for a few days.”
HONEY AND LEMON
Use for: Treating a cough and sore throat.
Israeli researchers tested various honeys as a way to ease a cough in children, giving them either 10g of honey or date extract half an hour before bed.
The honey reduced the severity and frequency of the cough and improved the child’s sleep better than the date extract, they wrote last year in the journal Paediatrics.
A US study found honey was better at reducing children’s night-time cough than popular suppressant dextromethorphan.
EXPERT OPINION: “The sugar in the honey can give a pep up if you haven’t been eating, but why honey should reduce a cough is not understood,” says Adam Frosh, a consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon at The Lister Hospital, Stevenage.
“Manuka honey is thought to be antibacterial, but there has been no robust research into its use for fighting infections such as a sore throat.” And heating it in a drink is thought to destroy anti- bacterial benefits.
A hot lemon and honey drink may help, but probably it’s the heat that’s key. “Hot drinks provide steam and warmth, which can soothe inflammation in the throat around the vocal cords,’ adds Dr Frosh. The taste of citrus can give a strong feeling of wellbeing. However, any hot drink would do really - but the effects will be temporary.”
Use for: Speeding up recovery from a cold.
This purple plant is one of the most commonly used herbal medicines for colds and flu. A review of 14 studies published in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases said it seemed to reduce a cold’s duration by 1.4 days. But a review from the Cochrane Library said evidence for its ability to help treat colds was “not fully consistent”.
Another popular herbal remedy is Koloba (pelargonium). A review of studies into this medicinal plant by the Cochrane library in 2008 concluded it may be effective in alleviating symptoms of bronchitis and colds in adults and children, but “doubt exists”.
EXPERT OPINION: “There is no evidence that echinacea reduces the incidence of colds but it may reduce their duration by a bit,” says Professor Mike Gleeson, an expert in exercise and physiology at Loughborough University.
“Koloba won’t prevent a cold, but it has been shown to reduce the symptoms and duration of a respiratory infection. Both remedies are thought to help improve white cell function - part of the immune response to bacteria and viruses.”
VITAMIN D PILLS
Use for: Preventing a cold.
The sunshine vitamin, as it’s known, is important for bone health, but has also recently been linked to the immune system.
Taking daily vitamin D has “a protective effect against colds and other respiratory infections”, said a review of 11 studies published in the journal PLoS One this year.
EXPERT OPINION: Dr Adrian Martineau, a reader in respiratory infection and immunity at Barts and London Medical School, says vitamin D can help reduce respiratory infections by making certain immune cells in the blood and lungs stronger. “But it doesn’t work for everyone,” he says.
“For example, a study giving vitamin D to Mongolian children who were profoundly deficient found it had a dramatic effect on preventing colds, but a trial with adults in New Zealand who all had good levels found it had no effect.”
How you take it also seems to be relevant. ‘Some studies have involved giving one big dose a month but this does not seem to be as helpful as giving a smaller dose of 10-50 micrograms daily.’
The NHS recommends anyone over 65 or who has little sun exposure to take 10 micrograms daily.
Use for: Easing a cough, soothing blocked sinuses.
Putting your head over a bowl of steaming - but not boiling - hot water is a popular way to deal with the symptoms of a cold. However, a study published this month in the British Medical Journal found using this technique for five minutes, three times a day had no benefit when tried on a group of 200 people with respiratory tract infections.
EXPERT OPINION: “The warm steam can soothe an inflamed voice box and help the cough associated with laryngitis,” says Adam Frosh. “It can also penetrate the sinuses and give a comforting feeling, although won’t actually unblock them.
“Adding menthol may temporarily make you feel as if the nose is less congested - actually it isn’t, menthol just makes receptors in the nose more sensitive to airflow, but does not physically improve the air flow. Use it for around five minutes, three times a day.
“It can be useful to do before going to bed if you are suffering from a night time cough.”
VITAMIN C PILLS
Use for: Preventing a cold - if you’re an athlete.
This vitamin came to prominence as a way to improve immunity in the Seventies. A recent review by the Cochrane Library looked at 29 studies involving more than 11 000 people and found that regularly taking the vitamin (the dose varied) did not affect the number of colds people developed - unless they were a serious athlete, when it halved their risk of colds.
EXPERT OPINION: “There is no evidence vitamin C will prevent a cold, and little that it will help when you have one,” says Professor Paul Little, who researches primary care at Southampton University.
Use for: Preventing an infection spreading round the family.
Many people swear by them, but hand gels and wipes might not be as effective as you think. A study in Applied and Environmental Microbiology in 2010 found an alcohol hand sanitiser to be ‘relatively ineffective’ at cleaning the hands of Norwalk virus - a form of winter vomiting big - compared with using liquid soap and water.
EXPERT OPINION: “These wipes and gels will never replace hand-washing - but they can be used in addition to help prevent a bug moving round the family,” says Dr Ron Cutler, a microbiologist from Queen Mary, University of London.
“To wash your hands properly, use warm water and soap and rub for 20 seconds. Then rinse and make sure you dry them properly. Once you have done that, you can use a hand gel to be doubly sure if you want.” - Daily Mail