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Common Cold And The Placebo Effect

July 13, 2011

Researchers have found that the so-called placebo effect works to help sufferers recover from the common cold.

For example, if you believe that chicken soup or vitamin C will cure your cold then chances are it might work for you.

A study of more than 700 patients focused on how the placebo effect works on the common cold.

The placebo effect is a phenomenon witnessed in clinical trials where people who are given an inactive, fake “treatments” such as a sugar pill or saline show improvements. Reuter reports that the effect has been seen in a number of conditions ranging from chronic pain to depression to inflammatory disorders and even cancer.

The study group of 719 participants who were just starting to show signs of cold symptoms was randomly assigned to one of four groups.

One group was given Echinacea, an herbal cold remedy, and they had knowledge of what they were getting.

Two other groups were either given Echinacea or a placebo, but they were not aware of which one they were assigned to take.

And the fourth group did not receive any kind of pills.

Results from the study showed that overall, no significant differences were noted among the groups when it came to the severity or duration of their cold symptoms, which lasted about a week in all the patients.

When researchers focused in on the 120 patients who believed that Echinacea had a positive impact on treating colds, they found that these participants felt better faster. In fact, placebo users recovered 2.5 days sooner than their no-pill counterparts, while Echinacea users’ illness lasted 1.5 days shorter.

Lead researcher Dr. Bruce Barrett at the University of Wisconsin in Madison says, “That’s actually a huge difference.”

“No treatment out there has ever been shown to reduce the duration of colds.”

Barrett adds that the findings suggest that “what people believe about their medicine matters.”

In addition, the study found that 62% of patients who did not receive a pill reported suffering from headaches, while less than 50% of patients in the pill-taking groups reported this side effect.

Results from the study led researchers to suggest that if you believe that a treatment such as Echinacea is effective in reducing your suffering from the common cold, then it would “seem reasonable” to continue.

Echinacea has been shown by some studies to have a benefit in treating colds, but more recent findings have revealed that the herbal remedy has little to no impact, reports the WSJ.

The study found that the placebo effect can help with the common cold, especially for those who believe in its therapy, however it is “limited” and “not large.”

Barrett adds that simple measures should be taken to help lessen the misery of a cold: getting enough rest, staying hydrated with plenty of fluids and eating well ““ which may include consuming some homemade chicken soup.

The report is published in the Annals of Family Medicine.

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