“The art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease.” — Voltaire

These days, every sniffle, cough or sneeze makes us and everyone around us jumpy that we might be carrying COVID. Yes, colds, flu and allergy symptoms are still with us, though at a reduced rate because of isolation, masking, hand-washing and the rest. The pediatric wards are nearly empty, with major decreases in the usual respiratory infection surges seen this time of year with children largely out of school.

Colds, flu and allergy are each a different upper respiratory entity and may be difficult to tell from COVID or even each other. Flu, compared to the cold usually is more intense; I call it the “run over by a truck” syndrome, though getting the flu vaccine can decrease symptoms significantly.

As north winds bring us the gift of pollens from the mainland, winter allergies develop causing sneezing, coughing, itchy eyes, clear nasal discharge and earaches.

Colds don’t generally start with the high fever, fatigue, sore throat, shortness of breath, low oxygen levels seen in COVID, though a bad flu can look and feel more like moderate to severe COVID.

When in doubt, call your health care professional or go in for a COVID and/or flu test. Get your COVID vaccine as soon as you can.

The common cold is actually related to the coronavirus. It has been around for a long time without such serious harm. And it brings its own brand of misery, runny nose, cough, low-grade fever, headache and other familiar symptoms. School and work absences result.

As a primary care doctor and student of home and folk remedies, I’ve learned that treating colds is more a matter of art and tradition than science. I observe, for example, that many folks seem to come down with a cold after a particularly stressful period in their lives.

The National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine just reviewed research literature on alternative and over-the-counter treatments for the common cold. Check it out at: www.nccih.nih.gov/health/providers/digest/the-common-cold-and-complementary-health-approaches?nav=govd

Among these were zinc, vitamin C and nasal saline rinses ranking best in safety and efficacy. However, as with elderberry, probiotics, honey, garlic and geranium extract, the research to support most of these remedies was generally weak. Plus, antibiotics don’t work for colds.

People still have used such remedies in their own cultures and homes for centuries. They just want to do something to feel better, benefitting from the placebo effect and tincture of time for relief. Or just maybe some remedies actually do work, having stood the test of time.

Adequate rest is hugely important in supporting our immunity. Keeping well hydrated prevents mucosal membranes from drying out and thus losing their protective barriers. Nasal irrigation is helpful to remove not only mucus but inflammatory chemicals. Hot soups and steam inhalation or vaporizers help.

So, be sensible and cautious this winter, and use the best ideas that science and grandma have to offer.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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