Every Cold and Flu Treatment That Has Been Recommended to me in the Past Two Months (And What the Evidence Says)

The following is cross-posted from Struck By Enlightning.

So, I’ve been sick since midway through December. First I had a cold, and just when I was getting over that I caught a nasty cough virus that’s been floating around Winnipeg this winter, and now I have a cold again as well as remnants of that damn cough combined with the return of my asthma. Party! And when you’re coughing and your voice is all nasally people tend to tell you what you need to do to get better.

The following are all of the remedies (alternative and mainstream) that have been recommended to me, as well as the best non-propagandaish information I could find on each:

Vitamin C

  • Rose to popularity as a treatment for the common cold in the 1970s after this book by Linus Pauling was published.
    • The Cochrane Collaboration is an organization that looks at the body of evidence for a given health care intervention and publishes reviews based on what the results of multiple trials say when considered as a whole. Here‘s the Vitamin C review. In a nutshell:
      • Regular ingestion of vitamin C had no effect on common cold incidence in the ordinary population.
      • It had a modest, but consistent effect in reducing the duration and severity of common cold symptoms.
    • If vitamin C doesn’t reduce my likelihood of coming down with a cold then I wouldn’t bother with taking a daily supplement, since it’s pretty easy to find foods that contain more than enough vitamin C, however it seems to me that it may be worth it to take 0.2g of Vitamin C per day to reduce the length of a cold.
    • Here‘s a podcast episode on the subject.
  • It is also frequently recommended as a way to “boost your immune system”
    • I’ll link to a few articles explaining why the idea that you can boost your immune system is little more than a marketing gimmick, but I’ll try to summarize: if your immune system is working normally it can’t be boosted, but exposure to illnesses (ex. vaccination) will improve your chances of not getting sick. I really think you should read the articles though: One, Two and Three.

Oil of Oregano

  • A few different people recommended Oil of Oregano to me, but nobody really had a clear description of what it’s supposed to do, or what illnesses it’s supposed to treat. There are all kinds of claims made about it but the evidence is lacking. Here‘s a good summary from Science-Based Pharmacy:
    “There is no published evidence to demonstrate that that oil of oregano is effective for any medical condition or illness. There is some very limited evidence to suggest that it might be useful for parasite infections – but given the evidence consists of only one study with 14 patients, and no placebo comparison, we really have no idea if the oregano oil was effective. The bottom line is that despite all the marketing, press, and sales, there is no research that exists to demonstrate that oil of oregano does anything useful in or on our bodies.”

Echinacea

  • A recent study (published in December, 2010) concluded that “illness duration and severity were not statistically significant with echinacea compared with placebo. These results do not support the ability of this dose of the echinacea formulation to substantively change the course of the common cold.”
  • Here‘s an assessment of the evidence for Echinacea by Steve Novella of the Skeptics’ Guide podcast. It’s from 2007, so it was written before that most recent study was published.
  • I should mention that I found both of these links on Skeptic North’s article, Coughs, colds and the “appealing but mistaken concept of boosting the immune system”

Garlic

  • I think this may have been the first time that somebody recommended garlic to me as a cold remedy, but basically it was just recommended that I eat a ton of garlic. I love garlic, so I have no problem incorporating it into my diet, especially when I’m going to be home sick from work for a few days and nobody has to smell me. But will it treat my cold?
  • There is a Cochrane review on the use of garlic for treating the common cold, but there was only one study that fulfilled the criteria for the review and it was a small one (146 participants). The study found that people who took garlic every day for 3 months had fewer colds, but it would take a larger trial to confirm these findings. There were other studies claiming that garlic is helpful in preventing the cold, but they were poor quality so they didn’t meet the Cochrane review standards.
  • I wouldn’t take or recommend garlic based on such poor evidence, although I wouldn’t advise against adding it to spaghetti sauce either.

Cold-fX

  • I have a friend who swears by Cold-fX, which means that for the past couple of months every time I converse with her and I sniffle or cough she tries pushing it on me. I know she means well, but I’m skeptical of any product that makes vague claims like “strengthens the immune system.” To me, that’s meaningless. It’s also fairly pricey, so it’s not worth it to me to spend money on something that has poor supporting evidence.
  • Science-based Pharmacy has an article looking at the evidence related to Cold-fX.
  • My Cold-fX loving friend always tells me “when I take it my colds don’t last as long,” but that’s not something that convinces me because: a) colds don’t always last the same length, b) personal testimonials aren’t helpful because there’s no way of knowing whether an individual would have gotten better without the treatment (this is why trials need large numbers and placebo groups), and c) who keeps track of how long their cold is anyways? People recover from colds whether or not they use a treatment, but without proper trials it’s impossible to say for sure whether something like Cold-fX has an effect.

Buckleys/NyQuil/any cough syrup

  • Personally, cough syrup did nothing for me. Buckleys provided 5 seconds of cooling in my throat before I had to start coughing again. All it did was put me to sleep, which was definitely welcome. But it made me doubtful that cough syrup does anything to alleviate symptoms.
  • I always thought of cough syrups as being efficacious just because they’re pretty mainstream medicine (not that that is a good argument for any treatment), but even Wikipedia has this to say: “There however is no good evidence for or against the use of these medications in those with a cough. Even though they are used by 10% of American children weekly, they are not recommended in children 6 years of age or younger due to lack of evidence showing effect, and concerns of harm.
  • The Cochrane review on “over-the-counter medications for acute cough” concludes: “There is no good evidence for or against the effectiveness of OTC medicines in acute cough. The results of this review have to be interpreted with caution due to differences in study characteristics and quality. Studies often showed conflicting results with uncertainty regarding clinical relevance. Higher quality evidence is needed to determine the effectiveness of self-care treatments for acute cough.”

Neti Pot

  • I actually can’t talk about the Neti Pot without gagging. The thought of sticking something up my nose and pouring a saline solution through my sinuses to wash snot out into my sink is so off-putting to me that I’ll probably never try it.
  • Neti Pots are an example of an alternative medicine practice that has been validated (to an extent), although evidence has shown that using it on a regular basis can increase your risk of sinus infections.

It’s funny that when you’re sick everyone around you puts on their doctor hat – all of a sudden they’re all medical authorities. I have this compulsion too, I recommended my “treatments” of Advil for the sore throat and NyQuil to get some sleep – who knows if that combo is even safe! I think it’s hard to see someone suffering from any kind of illness and not want to help, so we offer up treatments in the hopes that it will make them feel better. Unfortunately this probably does more to line the pockets of drug and supplement companies, who play on peoples’ beliefs in certain treatments in spite of the poor evidence for their efficacy, than it does to soothe the symptoms of a virus.

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The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day

Hello Winnipeg Skeptics, I’m Lindsay! I’m pleased to be joining this blog as a contributor, and I thought I’d briefly introduce myself before getting on with my first post. I was a Christian my whole life until 2008, when I started doubting my religion. This led me to skepticism of all sorts of claims that I used to buy into, and I’ve been interested in the skeptical movement ever since. I started a blog about a year and a half ago, and I mostly write about atheism, as well as general topics of interest to skeptics.

The following is cross-posted from Struck by Enlightning.

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Awhile back (a long while), someone named Chris commented on my Reading List page (which I have to update) that I should read The Irrational Atheist by Vox Day. Since it’s free to download I agreed, but so far I haven’t gotten past the first chapter. I thought I would write about the first section of the first chapter, and then maybe you can tell me if it’s even worth my time to keep reading.

The first chapter is called A Pride of Atheists (barf). Below is the text of the book in black, and my comments in red.

***

I don’t care if you go to Hell. Shit! Well that’s one way to kick off your book.

God does, assuming He exists and assuming you know the mind of God, or He okay this is only the second “He” in this chapter and I’m already annoyed at the capitalizing of the word “he”…God cares about me but he’ll hold it against me if I don’t capitalize a pronoun? wouldn’t have bothered sending His Son to save you from it. Jesus Christ does, too, assuming he existed, if you’ll accept for the sake of argument that he went to all the trouble of incarnating as a man, dying on the cross, and being resurrected from the dead in order to hand you a Get Out of Hell Free card. Is God not omnipotent? He really had to go to all that trouble to give me a Get Out of Hell Free card? And if he went to all that trouble why is my ticket out of hell so conditional? Free my ass!

Me, not so much. I don’t know you. I don’t owe you anything. I don’t know you either, Vox Day, but if I thought you were going to hell I would care. I’d be absolutely outraged. Nobody deserves eternal torment. While as a Christian I am called to share the Good News with you, I can’t force you to accept it. Horse, water, drink, and all that. Barf.

So, it’s all on you. Your soul is not my responsibility.

I am a Christian. I’m also a libertarian. I believe in free will and in allowing you to exercise it. I believe that our free will is a gift from our Creator and that He expects us to use it. I believe in living and letting live. If you’ll leave me alone, I’ll be delighted to do you the courtesy of leaving you alone in return. I have no inherent problem with atheists or agnostics, I have no problem with Muslims or Jews or Hindus or Pastafarians, and I have no problem with the crazies who believe that humanity is the result of ancient alien breeding experiments. To be honest, I rather like the crazies—their theories are usually the most entertaining of the lot. I believe what I believe, you believe what you believe, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t both be perfectly cool with that. Sure, fine, I can go along with that.

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens are not so much cool with that. Wha?? Wrong, they’re fine with letting people believe what they want too. Just because they choose to talk about atheism and criticize religion doesn’t mean that they want to force their views onto other people. Richard Dawkins was even part of an ad campaign that encouraged letting children choose for themselves what they believe, rather than labelling them from birth as Christians or Muslims or atheists, etc.

I’m not asking you to respect my beliefs. Good, I don’t. So far I don’t particularly respect you either. I mean, you just basically told me that you’ll be fine with it if I go to Hell. Why should you? Maybe you think I’m insane because I believe that Jesus is coming back one of these days, but does my insanity actually affect you in any material way? Not insane, but perhaps misguided. But it’s your prerogative if you think zombie Jesus is coming back. Is my religious madness really all that much more out there than my faith that the Minnesota Vikings will win the Super Bowl someday? Umm yeah the idea that some guy that’s the son of God but is also God who died 2000 years ago is going to come back to life and bring everyone up to heaven with him is kinda way more out there than the possibility that the Vikings will win the Super Bowl. Go Vikings! Talk about the substance of things hoped for . . . Vegas will give you better odds on J.C. this year. Who’s in the house? J.C.! As for your beliefs, I really don’t care if you want to question God’s existence or criticize the Pope or deny the Holocaust or declare that Jesus was an architect previous to his career as a prophet. Every member of humanity is at least a little bit crazy in his own special way, some just happen to make it a little more obvious than others. True dat, yo.

Vox’s First Law: Any sufficiently advanced intelligence is indistinguishable from insanity. I guess that’s supposed to be funny or cute or something, but it just doesn’t really work.

All I ask, all the vast majority of the billions of people of faith on the planet ask, is to be left alone to believe what we choose to believe and live how we decide to live. That’s fine by me, if only people were content just believing what they choose to believe. Unfortunately many believers want their faith to dictate what gets taught in the science classroom, or they want to decide who can legally marry or whether a woman can choose whether or not to stay pregnant. In some places peoples’ beliefs lead to terrorism and extreme violence against women. People can believe what they want to believe, but once those beliefs start affecting other peoples’ rights, we have to speak out against it. But the Unholy Trinity have no intention of leaving me alone. Richard Dawkins accuses me of child abuse because I teach my children that God loves them even more than I do. I’m not really sure if I agree with Dawkins that labelling your kid as a Christian (or whatever religion) from birth is tantamount to child abuse, but if what you want is for people to believe what they choose to believe, shouldn’t you avoid teaching your kids that there’s a god and let them discover that for themselves? Shouldn’t you let them be exposed to many different religions and to the idea that there may be no god and let them make their own informed decision without your prodding? Sam Harris declares that I should not be tolerated and suggests that it might be ethical to kill me in preemptive self-defense. Um, what? Sam Harris said that Christians should be killed? I seriously doubt that…anyone know what he’s talking about here? Christopher Hitchens asserts that I am a form of human Drāno, poisoning everything I encounter. He said religion poisons everything, not you. And I would sooner compare you to the clog in the drain, because you’re trying to stop the discourse and have everyone shut up about their beliefs, wheras Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins want to get the debate flowing. A fourth New Atheist, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, is less judgmental, but even he, bless his heart, wants to save me from myself. At least he cares enough to want to save you, you don’t even care if he goes to hell!

And now we have a problem.

That’s why I’m writing this book. I’m not trying to convince you that God exists. Why not? If you convince atheists that God exists then they won’t be out there doing all those horrible things like talking about skepticism of religion and criticizing the Bible. I’m not trying to convince you to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. I’m not even trying to convince you that religious people aren’t lunatics with low IQs who should be regarded with pity and contempt. But I am confident that I will convince you that this trio of New Atheists, this Unholy Trinity, are a collection of faux-intellectual frauds utilizing pseudo-scientific sleight of hand in order to falsely claim that religious faith is inherently dangerous and has no place in the modern world. You won’t succeed if the rest of the book is as full of crap as this first little bit has been.

I am saying that they are wrong, they are reliably, verifiably, and factually incorrect. Richard Dawkins is wrong. Daniel C. Dennett is wrong. Christopher Hitchens is drunk he reminds me of Julian from the Trailer Park Boys, always a drink in hand, and he’s wrong. Michel Onfray is French, and he’s wrong OMG, wrong and French?. Sam Harris is so superlatively wrong that it will require the development of esoteric mathematics operating simultaneously in multiple dimensions to fully comprehend the orders of magnitude of his wrongness. All I can do is roll my eyes here.

You make the call. Here’s what I think so far: the rest of this book will be a waste of my time.

***

Okay I’m back to black text now…so what do you think? Should I keep reading?