Common cold treatments – what works, what is just plain nonsense

common cold treatments

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.

One major problem is that the determination of 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. So, positive results, if they exist, should be treated with a high degree of skepticism. Continue reading “Common cold treatments – what works, what is just plain nonsense”

Big supplement profits – making boatloads of money in the name of pseudoscience

big supplement

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.

 

Continue reading “Big supplement profits – making boatloads of money in the name of pseudoscience”

Supplements to treat the common cold–myth vs science

cold-cureIt’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.

 

Continue reading “Supplements to treat the common cold–myth vs science”

Antioxidant supplements for cancer–myth vs. science

I’ve never been a fan of vitamin supplements. Aside from a very few supplements intended for a few specific clinical conditions, like vitamin C and scurvy, they have little use in preventing or treating diseases. In fact, because mammalian physiology has evolved a homeostasis for these chemicals, any excess amount that can’t be stored in the fat or other tissue is cleared by the kidneys and becomes part of your urine. I’m willing to venture that the urine of many Americans is quite expensive, with all of the cleared vitamins and other micronutrients. A balanced diet over several weeks is sufficient to provide the body with all of the nutrients and vitamins to be healthy and strong. You are not even required to have all vitamins and nutrients every day, as storage of a few nutrients will be released as necessary, and clinical manifestations of nutrient deficiency may take weeks or months.  

Continue reading “Antioxidant supplements for cancer–myth vs. science”

The importance of Cochrane Reviews to science based medicine (updated)

Cochrane Collaboration Copyrighted from the Cochrane Collaboration

The Cochrane Collaboration is a critically important source in evidence-based medicine, and a useful tool in providing analytical evidence that can debunk pseudoscientific beliefs. Cochrane’s goal is to organize research data and publications in an logical way that helps physicians and researchers make appropriate decisions about a proposed new therapy, medication or clinical idea. Cochrane Reviews are:

…are systematic reviews of primary research in human health care and health policy, and are internationally recognised as the highest standard in evidence-based health care. They investigate the effects of interventions for prevention, treatment and rehabilitation. They also assess the accuracy of a diagnostic test for a given condition in a specific patient group and setting.

Each systematic review addresses a clearly formulated question; for example: Can antibiotics help in alleviating the symptoms of a sore throat? All the existing primary research on a topic that meets certain criteria is searched for and collated, and then assessed using stringent guidelines, to establish whether or not there is conclusive evidence about a specific treatment. The reviews are updated regularly, ensuring that treatment decisions can be based on the most up-to-date and reliable evidence. Continue reading “The importance of Cochrane Reviews to science based medicine (updated)”

Cancer prevention–supplements

Potential causes for cancer are numerous. Infections. Radon gas. Cigarette smoking. Sun exposure. Obesity. With over 200 types of cancer, each with a different pathophysiology, there may be an equal (and probably greater) number of causes. Although many causes can be easily eliminated, such as stopping smoking, testing your house for radon, getting an HPV vaccine to prevent human papillomavirus infections, and wearing sunblock to reduce the risk of melanomas, the sheer complexity and number of types of cancer means that there is probably not going to be any simple panacea to preventing (or even curing) cancer. In fact, some hereditary cancers, such as those individuals who carry genes that are implicated in breast and ovarian cancers, may not be preventable at all. Continue reading “Cancer prevention–supplements”

How pseudoscience makes its case-Part 2. Revised and repost.

Recently, we discussed how science works. It’s not a belief. It’s not a random set of rules. It is a rational and logical process to determine cause and effect in the natural world. Pseudoscience, by its very nature, ignores the scientific process; instead, it claims to come to conclusions through science, usually by using scientific sounding words, but actually avoids the scientific process.  They tend to use logical fallacies to make their case.  Just to be clear, logical fallacy is essentially an error of reasoning. When a pseudoscientist  makes a claim, or attempts to persuade the public of this claim, and it is based on a bad piece of reasoning, they commit a fallacy. Continue reading “How pseudoscience makes its case-Part 2. Revised and repost.”

Preventing and treating the common cold

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”

The importance of Cochrane Reviews to evidence based medicine

Cochrane Collaboration Copyrighted from the Cochrane Collaboration

The Cochrane Collaboration is a critically important source in evidence-based medicine, and a useful tool in providing analytical evidence that can debunk pseudoscientific beliefs. Cochrane’s goal is to organize research data and publications in an logical way that helps physicians and researchers make appropriate decisions about a proposed new therapy, medication or clinical idea. Cochrane Reviews are:

…are systematic reviews of primary research in human health care and health policy, and are internationally recognised as the highest standard in evidence-based health care. They investigate the effects of interventions for prevention, treatment and rehabilitation. They also assess the accuracy of a diagnostic test for a given condition in a specific patient group and setting.

Each systematic review addresses a clearly formulated question; for example: Can antibiotics help in alleviating the symptoms of a sore throat? All the existing primary research on a topic that meets certain criteria is searched for and collated, and then assessed using stringent guidelines, to establish whether or not there is conclusive evidence about a specific treatment. The reviews are updated regularly, ensuring that treatment decisions can be based on the most up-to-date and reliable evidence. Continue reading “The importance of Cochrane Reviews to evidence based medicine”

How pseudoscience makes its case. Part 4.

This is my continuing multi-part discussion about how pseudoscience uses logical fallacies, strawman arguments, and other rhetoric to make its case, rather than real science.  Just click on the links to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The other day I engaged in a discussion with a well-meaning pharmacist who claimed that vitamin C could treat colds and prevent other diseases like  “cancer” (I always get annoyed  by people who lump all cancers together, when there are over 200 different cancers, all of which have different histologies, genetics, and causes).  Of course, there are a number of well-controlled clinical trials that show that vitamin C has no effect on the common cold and has no effect on cancers so far studied (see this, this, this and this).

During our discussion, she said “science should be neutral,” with the implication that I wasn’t neutral.  I happen to agree, science should be neutral and it should balanced.  But science should be based upon the scientific method not rhetoric and not using science-y words, at which the writers of Star Trek were well-versed.

So, when I say that I am (or any evidence-based real scientist), “scientifically neutral”, that means I’m willing to weigh the evidence and publications on real scientific issues.  I am not a geologist nor a paleontologist, but I was studying biochemistry when the earliest theories on what caused the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event 65.5 million years ago, where all the dinosaurs (well, not all, since technically modern birds are surviving dinosaurs from a cladistic point of view) and some 75% of all extant genera died out or were killed.  In 1980, Luis Alvarez, a brilliant theoretical physicist whose career was extraordinary, along with his son, Walter Alvarez (a geologist), and Frank Asaro, published an article that describe a sedimentary layer across the world that included a rare element, iridium, usually found in extraterrestrial objects like meteors and comets.  The layer fell right at the geological boundary layer that defines the extinction event, so they proposed that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a huge comet or asteroid.

Today, this accepted as a scientific theory with tons of confirming evidence (although some scientists aren’t fully convinced, though they still propose some natural event).  But at the time, it was ridiculed, and scientific meetings were quite energetic in discussions.  The point is that the impact theory displaced the prevailing scientific theory of the extinction event (well, there were several).  One theory replaced another not by rhetoric or appeals to antiquity (that one theory was around forever) or anything else.  In fact, one scientific hypothesis was replaced by another and eventually developed into a solid theory.

We should be neutral in science, reviewing the evidence, then coming to conclusions.  The Alvarez father-son team provided that, and eventually there was overwhelming evidence with the finding and dating of the Chicxulub impact crater in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

Using scientific neutrality, vitamin C doesn’t work, not because I have an opinion, but because there is no science supporting its efficacy.  There are some articles that support its use in preventing or treating colds, or megadoses for curing cancer, but those articles are in low-impact (meaning obscure) journals or with poorly designed, or non-blinded trials.  My friendly neighborhood pharmacist was stating that I should be neutral between real science and well, nothing at all.  That’s not balance, that’s a close-mindedness to science and the scientific method.  That’s using opinion as the balance to scientific knowledge.  The only thing that should balance scientific knowledge is more scientific knowledge.

Don’t fall for the trap that you should be “open-minded” or neutral to anti-science or pseudoscience.  Open-mindedness and neutrality are expectations that you will balance real scientific evidence, not treat the rhetoric as if it has equal weight to scientific method.