Friday, January 6, 2017


For the most part I have been lucky with my health. True, I’ve written on blackboards with chalk that is tougher than my tooth enamel, but, dental issues aside, I’ve fared pretty well, so far dodging bullets (the metaphorical kind) big and small. I’ve no troublesome allergies and rarely catch colds or the flu even when repeatedly exposed. “Rarely” is not the same as “never,” however, and after multiple exposures in close quarters to sniffling fellow humans in the past week, I have caught my first (and hopefully last) cold of 2017.

Colds are described in some the earliest writings that exist, so it is a safe bet that the common cold predates civilization. After all, it’s hard to imagine a better way to spread a cold virus among one’s clan than by huddling together in a cold dank cave in Paleolithic times. Cold viruses mutate so rapidly that permanent immunity to them is impossible to evolve, which is one reason they are still with us. We have no idea how prehistoric people dealt with colds, but, since colds typically last only 10 to 14 days, almost any “remedy” would seem to work, which is a prime opportunity for a shaman to claim credit by interposing with magic.

The earliest cold remedy on record is from ancient Egypt in the Ebers papyrus (c.1550 BCE); it prescribes the milk of a mother of a boy. The remedy also requires an accompanying incantation: “May you flow out, catarrh, son of catarrh, who breaks the bones, who destroys the skull, who hacks in the marrow, who causes the seven openings in the head to ache.” I haven’t tried it, not least because asking for the ingredient seems something of an untoward imposition. However, I suspect it would work in about 10 to 14 days. More recently (1744) John Wesley recommended opium and olive oil. I doubt this mixture would speed recovery but I can see how the sufferer might cease to care. So too with William Buchan’s boozy advice from the same era: “Go to bed, hang your hat on the foot of the bed and continue to drink until you can see two hats.” – Dr Bucan’s Domestic Medicine (1772).

Modern remedies have no greater success. Despite claims made for zinc, Vitamin C, and chicken soup, it is not clear that any of them really help (though they don’t hurt). At most (and this is disputed) they might cut a day or two off the experience. By staying warm and hydrated, however, we can avoid making things worse. Fortunately, in the absence of a secondary infection most of us can expect to recover on schedule without a doctor’s intervention – an intervention that won’t help with the cold itself.

I had a cold. The doctor came
            And five assistants too.
They laid ten icy hands on me,
            And now I’ve got the flu.
                                                – Martial c.90 CE (Lionel Casson translation)

Humble Pie – I Don't Need No Doctor


  1. Opium, olive oil, and whiskey might be worth a try. I think I had a cold a couple of weeks back, but it's hard to tell as I have bad allergies, and usually have trouble around this time of year. From around Halloween to Thanksgiving, when all the trees lose their leaves or some type of rag weed blooms, hard to tell.

    I've been to allergist in the past, and they did shot/injection thing, it's not a cure-all, merely a help-some. I found out through it though I'm allergic to several things: dust mites, roach eggs, some cedars, etc. Stuff that's hard to escape in daily living though you can keep a cleaner house, and a few other things. I never had to worry about weepy eyes though until I moved to East Tx, nor much with runny noses. With that last bout I was about ready to call an allergist again, but waited it out. Zyrtec and a whiskey shot at nighttime helped.

    1. I’ve lucked out on allergies though I see the seasonal suffering of those who haven’t – or the non-seasonal suffering of visitors to my house who are allergic to cat fur. Sooner or later cold viruses catch us all though.

      I don’t know about opium, but there might be something to the whiskey remedy. Anything that relaxes the capillaries – including capsaicin in spicy foods – will help with decongestion, and whiskey will do that. I’d personally stop before seeing two hats though. I’m not sure a hangover is preferable to cold symptoms.