Many of the good people who read this blog understand that the flu is a very dangerous disease. In the USA, the CDC estimates that the flu season every year results in 12 to 56 thousand deaths and 140 to 710 thousand hospitalizations. It is not a trivial disease that can be easily ignored. Let me be frank – your best, and really, the only choice to prevent the flu is getting the seasonal flu vaccine. And, it is the only method to boost your or your children’s immune system against the flu.
These ineffective treatments exist for one reason – money. Cold and flu treatments are a significant part of the estimated global US$278 billion supplement and nutraceutical industry. And the industry is largely unregulated, so they can make unsupported claims about things like flu treatments, and people buy them based on the pseudoscience and false claims.
It’s that time of year when dozens of common cold treatments are all over the place. On TV advertisements. On displays in your pharmacy. Once again, it’s time to take a look at these lotions and potions to determine which work and which are complete pseudoscientific nonsense.
There are literally a dozen or more homeopathic, herbal, and other unproven concoctions to prevent or treat the common cold, caused by rhinovirus. These common cold treatments are a significant part of the estimated global US$278 billion supplement and nutraceutical industry.
These alternative medicine – so named because there is no scientific evidence supporting their efficacy, let alone safety – products make claims that are so wonderful, many people take them. Then they themselves tell their friends how fast they got rid of their cold. Or that their cold wasn’t as bad after taking the supplement.
Essentially, the whole industry is mostly based on anecdotes, untested claims and the placebo effect. Colds are self-limiting infections, meaning an infection generally lasts some random amount of time, with most people recovering within 7-10 days.
We’re going to review some of the most well-known common cold treatments (there isn’t enough time to review them all), along with what real science says about them in high quality systematic reviews in peer-reviewed, high impact medical journals. This article will review all of the common cold treatments that seem to be out there. Spoiler alert – most don’t work.
As a vaccine supporter, I get accused of being a shill for Big Pharma all the time. My basement is filled with gold bars shipped to me in remuneration for my services to the corporate hooligans – wait. No basement, no gold bars. On the other hand, Big Supplement, those companies who make money off of people who think that if they take this one vitamin to prevent all cancer, makes a a ton of money selling this junk medicine to unwary and unsophisticated consumers.
Let’s take a moment and look at the differences between Big Pharma and Big Supplement. The former has to work hard and provide evidence of what its drugs do, while the latter basically can sit around and throw darts at various claims, then randomly assign those claims to some new or old supplement.
Editor’s note: This article combines elements of several articles about pseudoscience published in 2012 and 2013. It’s been revised to include some newer information and split into several parts to improve readability. See Part 1 here.
This is part 2 of the Pseudoscience and science series.
Pseudoscience and science – the former is bullshit. And the latter is fact based on robust, unbiased evidence. Mostly pseudoscience can be ignored, even if it smells bad.
Pseudoscience is enticing because it’s easy to understand. It’s not nuanced, and it general speaks in black and white terms, often false dichotomies. That view is most prevalent in medicine.
Real doctors will say “this treatment for XYZ cancer is going to be difficult. You’ll lose your hair. You’ll feel sick all the time. You might be in pain. But it gives a 73% chance of putting the cancer into remission, and you have a reasonable chance of living at least five years.”
The pseudo-medicine pusher will say, “drink this juice and have a coffee enema. No side effects. And I guarantee that the cancer will disappear.”
The second choice is so enticing. So easy. But most of us know that treating most cancers is hard. We try to find another way, and hope for the best. Maybe you can choose the junk medicine approach, and get lucky with a spontaneous remission. Or maybe the real medicine worked well enough to cause the remission.
Of course, pseudoscience can make broad claims without the rigorous research required to make those claims. The charlatans who push junk medicine get to say whatever they want, with no consequences usually.
Alternative medicine is bullshit – it is firmly grounded in pseudoscience.
It’s getting colder outside, and if you go into any pharmacy, grocery store, chemist, or superstore, you will find literally a dozen or more homeopathic, herbal, or other unproven lotions and potions to prevent or treat the common cold, or rhinovirus. These supplements are a significant part of the annual US$108 billion dollar supplement/nutraceutical industry.
These alternative medicine (so named because there is no scientific evidence supporting their efficacy, let alone safety) products make claims that are so wonderful, many people take them. Then they themselves tell their friends how fast they got rid of their cold. Or that their cold wasn’t as bad after taking the supplement.
The problem is that determine the length and severity of the course of the common cold is entirely subjective. Since the disease is rather mild with few serious complications, it’s hard to determine when it exactly stopped and started, and how bad it was. The common cold tends to resolve itself without external help, but there really isn’t much you can do to make your immune system attack that cold faster.
One of the more ironic memes on the internet is how pharmaceutical companies make so much money (and they do), with the false conclusion that somehow all that money means that they’re not really interested in providing drugs that are safe and efficacious. Then, those same memes will claim that “natural supplements” are healthier and better, while they ignore the profit motive of supplement pushers (henceforth called Big Herbal).
It’s getting close to winter once again, so people always recommend their various lotions and potions to either prevent the common cold or, at least, to reduce the course of the disease. Alternative medicine’s favorite disease to treat is the common cold, mainly because it’s an easy disease to handle without too many serious problems. Also, from the patient’s perspective, the length and seriousness of the cold is usually very subjective, since the patient has a difficult time making an accurate determination when the cold started or ended, and making a quantitative assessment of the seriousness of the disease. Moreover, confirmation bias is usually the reason one hears that something worked for the cold–the person who reports some product works forgets all the times it doesn’t. Or completely misjudges the actual effects of any treatment.
The list of products that you might run across in your local pharmacy that claim to have an effect on the common cold are many. Zinc, oscillococcinum, garlic, and vitamin C. I wrote about these products last winter, and they mostly don’t work. The strangest cold remedy you might find is oscillococcinum, which is a homeopathic preparation derived from duck liver and heart, diluted to 200C, or 200 1:100 dilutions. In other words, in a liter of water there are precisely no molecules of duck guts. And there isn’t any logical explanation of a possible mechanism that would allow one to conclude that duck offal has an effect on cold viruses. Though Oscillococcinum is supposed to be used for flus, many use it for colds, but it doesn’t matter, why would a diluted potion of duck guts cure any virus? Well, Cochrane Reviews concluded that ”current evidence does not support a preventative effect of Oscillococcinum-like homeopathic medicines in influenza and influenza-like syndromes.” Continue reading “Echinacea and the common cold–Myth vs. Science”
It’s cold season, so everyone tries various lotions and potions to either prevent the common cold or, at least, to reduce the course of the disease. Alternative medicine’s favorite disease to treat is the common cold, mainly because it’s an easy disease with not too many consequences. Also, it’s very subjective, since the patient has a difficult time making an accurate determination of the length and severity of the attack. Confirmation bias is usually the reason one hears that something works for the cold. They forget all the times it doesn’t. Or completely misjudge the actual effects of any treatment. Continue reading “Preventing and treating the common cold”