Headmasters Thoughts: February 2020

This being February’s “Thoughts,” I suspect that you and I will soon get (if we have not already recently had one) the common cold. I am told that we get them two or three times a year, and that seems about right in my experience.

The question is: what can you do to get rid of the cold quickly? One almost does not know where to start answering this question, so we could do worse than to go back to the great polymath, the man who started the concept of the modern encyclopedia, Pliny the Elder. His was of a somewhat skeptic disposition, which, considering the natural remedies he lists in his “Natural History,” one can understand. Nonetheless, in a work that was the first of its kind and served as the model for all Encyclopedias that followed, he dutifully listed historical solutions to ailments, even if the practical side of him would, I am sure, not have followed them himself. His “folk medicine” cure for the cough that came with a cold, was wolf’s liver in warmed wine. Another solution, if that did not work, was drinking horse saliva for three days. I think Pliny was having fun since he described another cure requiring one to drink warmed horse urine, but not any horse, only a mare. In the end, Pliny does say that honey helped his cough (I warned you that the man was a genius), and it does indeed.
I come from England, where the most famous of the old folk cures involved eating a roasted mouse. On any level, that seems like bad advice. Mice carry diseases (not as much as rats to be sure, but I never thought of them as hygienic little creatures). Maybe the idea of roasting them would eliminate the “bad” stuff (germs and viruses) and only allow the consumer to ingest the “good” stuff, whatever that may be. I discussed this with a Chinese friend who has seen “bamboo mice” (which she said looked like any other mice) on the menu in Guangzhou Province. Unfortunately, at least as far as I am concerned, she never ate one and cannot tell me what they taste like (but then is not everything supposed to taste like chicken?)
There are many antique English prints of old men with their feet in hot tubs of various liquids, often hot water and lemon or vinegar. One remedy, popular in London, was sitting with the feet in hot water with dirty socks. A sort of twofer; the socks get cleaner, and you get healthier. From the same era, are the prints for “patented” miracle cures containing elixirs of anything that the salesman could convince the gullible would help. Donizetti’s wonderful opera, L’Elisir d’Amore, is about a traveling fraud who sells love potions to hopeful young people. The aim is that the potion is slipped into the drink of the desired, and that she or he would fall in love with the first person thereafter that she or he sets her or his eyes upon. I put miracle cold cures in the same “bogus” category.
So let us get seriously down to some of our present-day cures. Chicken soup is the most popular remedy, and there are scientific studies that report that it helps. I wonder if those same scientists ever checked out the roasted mice. Echinacea has its adherents. A friend of mine who is a very qualified doctor, swears by grapefruit juice. I quote him: “it flushes out the virus.” The fact is that we do lose water when we have a cold, either through sweating or sneezing, and any hot fluids must help loosen mucus and replace fluids. In Hong Kong, they sell Lizard Soup with the same promises as Chicken Soup, and I am assured that it works just as well.
When I went to school, we had a poster in London that showed a man sneezing into his handkerchief with the caption “trap the germs – in your handkerchief.” That still makes medical sense since the cotton sheet probably limits the spread of the cold virus. Now that most of us use Kleenex tissues, we have to hope they accomplish the same goal. But the admonition to “trap the germs,” while sensible, did not indicate that the cold itself would be any less severe or its time abbreviated by this method. Currently, it is virtuous to sneeze into your elbow. But no one tells you how long thereafter you have to hold up your arm.
Dr. Linus Pauling won two Nobel Prizes, and he firmly believed that massive regular doses of vitamin C would prevent the catching of the common cold. This is considered a common remedy once you actually have a cold, and sometimes the vitamin is combined with zinc, for reasons that I cannot understand. Too much vitamin C may cause kidney stones, among other unpleasant digestive problems. I have a general suspicion of too much of anything.
I would like to know of the most obscure of remedies, and I would, even more, love to know of one that worked. No placebo effect but a real way to shorten the period of misery. Jayme takes Mucinex, which works for her but not for me. Nyquil puts me to sleep pleasantly (it does not have the same effect on Jayme), and that seems an acceptable way to last through the worst days of the cold. I believe it is straight alcohol in disguise.
I know that we should eat vegetables, exercise, and get enough sleep. But I doubt that any of that is the secret to never getting sick. We are going to get colds. It is often said that a common cold from start to finish takes two weeks, but if you take all of the medications, it only takes 14 days. Still, I like the concept of placebos, the charm of the folk tales, and the optimism of the Chicken Soup devotees.
When in doubt, I turn to the website of the Mayo Clinic. They are not sure about vitamin C or Echinacea, and they are concerned about the negative side effects of zinc. They recommend getting rest, staying hydrated, soothing sore throats with over the counter pastilles, gargling with salt water, aspirin if you are over three years of age, humidifying the air of your bedroom, and drinking hot liquids (such as Chicken Soup) to open your nasal passages. The best advice they give is to wash your hands frequently to prevent catching the cold in the first place. I can testify that does not work, and yet I continue to try and wash my hands as much as I can.
Finally, maybe garlic. In The Two Thousand Year Old Man, Carl Reiner asks Mel Brooks what his secret is to living so long. Brooks, playing the man who has lived over two thousand years, replies it is garlic. “When the Angel of Death comes to my bedside to get me, I turn over and breathily say to him, ‘Yes?’ And I have eaten so much garlic that the angel can’t stand it and runs away”. Maybe worth a shot.
Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep