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