Dirty Little Secrets of the Common Cold

The end of the school year is nearly upon us. The teachers and students are counting the days and hours remaining, looking forward to the final bell. I’m counting, too, but I’m a little more panicked than my children are. I am looking forward to lazy summer mornings and family adventures to far-flung places, but there’s no question my schedule and the way I approach getting things done is about to change dramatically. It takes some planning. And it takes not getting a stupid cold two weeks before the crazy summer begins.

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Ah…spring. photo credit: califmom ‘Snot Funny via photopin (license)

I’ve been incredibly lucky so far this year. I avoided the dreaded flu that took many of my friends and neighbors completely out of commission for a week or more. While others coughed and sniffled their ways through the winter, I breathed easy. Then a few days ago, I woke up with an excruciatingly sore throat at the start of what has been a goopy-headed, achy, tired week with a lengthy to-do list.

As you probably know, there are quite a few suggested remedies out there for colds, none of which work most of the time, and no actual cure. I get that. Nobody is going to win the Nobel Prize for curing the common cold. The world has bigger problems.

But I was curious to see what solutions people came up with in the past. Frankly, I didn’t come across much that I wanted anything to do with. I did, however, find some relief of sorts in a book by William Buchan, a Scottish physician who in 1769 became the Dr. Spock of his day. For those of you who are younger than me, Dr. Spock is the physician who wrote the household medicine book your mother would have kept on a shelf in the kitchen before she had access to Dr. Google.

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Not that Spock. photo credit: Tom Simpson Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock animation cel from Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973) via photopin (license)

Long before Spock’s Baby and Childcare, there was Buchan’s Domestic Medicine: or, a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines. The book sold more than 80,000 copies in nineteen editions before his death in 1805, and was the most popular medical book sitting on the kitchen shelves of mothers across Europe.

Dr. Buchan had a lot to say about the dreaded common cold, most of it having to do with sweat. The man was obsessed with perspiration, insisting that you must never neglect the crucial process of sweating and must also at all times remain completely dry. That may sound like contradicting information, but think of it like reading a study that concludes drinking coffee will prolong your life, and then the next day reading another study that insists coffee will give you cancer. So yeah, it’s definitely contradictory.

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Forget hand sanitizer. If you want to stay healthy, grab a towel! Picture by Pexels, via Pixabay.

But Buchan’s main concern in focusing so much attention on sweat has mostly to do with temperature. Common diseases, including the ever-aggravating head cold, he claims, are caused most often by exposure to drastic changes in temperature. And that would totally explain why an otherwise perfectly healthy person might suddenly develop a cold in the middle of spring, when the temperature is at its most wishy-washy. That is, if you happen to be an eighteenth century doctor with no concept of viruses and disease transmission.

To keep from catching a cold, then, the good doctor says one should change his or her clothes immediately after sweating, to avoid rapid cooling. Also if one finds oneself overheated, he or she should, under no circumstances, drink something cold or, to be extra safe, anything at all. That’s also true when a carelessly wet person inevitably develops a cold. Never drink. Not spirits. Not water. Not anything. Also avoid particularly cool, juicy fruit. Vegetables are okay, as tolerated.

By far Dr. Buchan’s most dire warning is about sleeping in a damp bed, which you definitely don’t want to do. By damp, of course he means one that has not been in proper use for some time, and so has absorbed moisture from the air. Always, he says, put guests in rooms with beds that have been thoroughly slept in and not carefully cleaned. In fact, he recommends completely avoiding spending much time at all in rooms that have been recently cleaned.

messy bed
Because nothing says “Welcome to my home” like a guest bed that looks like this. photo credit: Edna Winti Sunrise via photopin (license)

And this I think is the one piece of advice in this little book that may be beneficial to me, because on my long list of to-dos is to prepare my house for hosting folks who will be staying with us for a large family event coming up right after school lets out. Normally this would involve a lot of washing and scrubbing and sanitizing. Since I’m still fighting this cold, I don’t really have the energy for all of that.

Thanks to Dr. Buchan’s medical wisdom, I know I can just relax and rest up instead. I’ll be a thoughtful and responsible hostess, by welcoming my guests into a healthful and dry, filthy home, with a cup of coffee that may or may not give them cancer.

11 thoughts on “Dirty Little Secrets of the Common Cold

  1. I think I might follow this advice from now on as well. It’s because I care. Hope you get better soon! Glad you missed that nasty flu. I got it late last year. I was down for over a week and the cough lingered for over a month.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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