By: Michael Woods, Detroit News and Toledo Blade
Wednesday, March 03, 2004
February 25, 2004
Let that runny nose run. Cough and sneeze away. A little fever? Let it rise. Just say “no” to decongestants, antihistamines, cough drops, Advil, aspirin and everything else that might bring blessed relief to those miserable symptoms.
The best medicine for cold and flu symptoms may be no medicine.
And the old doctors’ joke about those sniffles and sneezes may be wrong.
You know: If you treat the symptoms of a common cold, you’ll feel better in about 7 days. If left alone, the cold will be over in a week.
A relatively new field called evolutionary or Darwinian medicine argues that treating symptoms of some diseases may actually make the illness worse.
Those symptoms, the Doctor Darwins say, are the sirens, screeching tires and pistol shots from the good guys — cops Mother Nature dispatches to battle an infection. The uproar may not feel so good, but maybe it’s good for you.
Mucus in a runny nose teems with viruses, and sneezes blast millions of viruses out of the body before they can infect more cells and reproduce again. Coughing clears microbes from the lungs. Fever revs up the immune system so that it battles infections.
Listen to one of Darwinian medicine’s pioneers, Dr. Randolph M. Nesse, of the University of Michigan: "Much of clinical medicine relieves people’s discomfort by blocking defenses like fever, pain, nausea and diarrhea. How can this be safe? Defenses are often confused with diseases. Knowing the difference is crucial, because interfering with a defense is often unwise."
Pain is a defense against tissue damage and keeps people from using an injured joint, Nesse explained. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea help rid the body of infection and toxins. Nausea early in pregnancy discourages the mother from eating toxic substances that may harm the baby.
Search for “Darwinian medicine” on the Internet, and you’ll be up to your runny nose in information, including the book (”Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine”) that Nesse coauthored in 1994 to help launch the field.
People in the United States spend more than $2 billion each year on nonprescription drugs that relieve cold and flu symptoms. Yet there is amazingly little evidence on what that money buys.
There are hints that putting up with cold and flu symptoms may pay off.
One 2000 study headed by Karen I. Plaisance of the University of Maryland found that flu sufferers who took aspirin or other anti-fever drugs were sick an average of 3.5 days longer than people with the same severity of illness who took none.
Others suggest that some remedies, such as zinc acetate throat lozenges and vitamin C, may lend Mother Nature a hand.
If the Darwinian doctors are right, cold and flu suffers can make a simple trade off. Suffer more but get it over faster by forsaking medicine, or choose cold remedies and a longer but more comfortable illness.
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