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May 13, 2021 3 min read

It’s one of the first things that we’re accustomed to doing, as soon as we begin to feel less than our best; we reach for that box of paracetamol or ibuprofen, seeking some relief for our symptoms. Indeed, so automatic is this habit, that we might not even consider exactly what these drugs do to our bodies, or even whether they’re effective in helping us get better.

While such remedies may well tone down symptoms you experience such as a runny nose or fever, it’s important to remember that those symptoms actually signal your immune system is doing its job.

It may not necessarily even be desirable, then, to banish your symptoms, especially if the remedies you take don’t actually do anything to aid your recovery from your cold, flu or similar condition.

Remember: taking paracetamol won’t cure your cold

Of course, it’s important to emphasise that there’s no cure for the common cold. But even if you’re simply turning to this popular drug for the purpose of relieving your symptoms, you might be interested in reading the past research that even sheds doubt on this.

A 2015 study by the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand involved 40 flu sufferers being given paracetamol for five days, while another 40 took placebo pills. The research – published in the Respirologymedical journal – found that paracetamol did not help the condition of sufferers.

And that’s far from the only source of scepticism towards paracetamol that we have seen in recent years. An article in The Guardianin the same year as the aforementioned study even dared to ask whether the ubiquitous medication could “do you more harm than good”.

Freelance scientist journalist Nic Fleming drew attention to the concerns of some scientists that taking paracetamol over prolonged periods could have “serious side-effects”. He added: “That might seem a risk worth taking if it were not for recent research that suggests the drug either doesn’t work, or has only a very small effect for most people.”

Should we even necessarily be treating fevers, anyway?

The answer that some scientists would now suggest, is often no – or not if you’re chiefly interested in recovery rather than mere relief.

Among those to suggest that in most cases, you probably don’t need to treat a fever, is fever researcher Dr Paul Young. The intensive care specialist has been quoted as saying – by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – that some evidence indicates reducing a fever actually hinders recovery from infections.

Indeed, Dr Young was involved in a study suggesting that for those with more severe illness, the treatment of fever might even heighten the risk of death. The research in question – involving more than 600,000 intensive care patients – found a link between higher fever in the 24 hours following admission, and a lower death rate.

He commented: “There’s a cost that comes with having a fever. You tend to have a higher heart rate, you tend to breathe faster and the metabolic demands on your body are generally increased. In the absence of infection this might be a bad thing. But if you have an infection, the fever seems to help kill the bugs.”

So, what should you be doing when you start feeling unwell?

Naturally, every individual must make their own decisions on the treatments they would prefer if they do suffer from sickness. However, there also seems to be increasing evidence that when recovery instead of mere relief is the chief aim, drugs like paracetamol and ibuprofen should not be treated as automatic ‘go-tos’.

The right high-dose vitamin drink, for example, could go a long way to supporting sustainable recovery when you do feel less than your best – without the risks that might be posed by drugs geared mainly towards relieving symptoms.

And as the NHS advises, sleep, rest and drinking plenty of water should also help you to recover faster from a common cold. Whatever you do, make sure you’re doing everything you can to strengthen your immune system and power your recovery, instead of worrying about cold or fever symptoms alone!

Other sources:

https://www.standard.co.uk/escapist/health/got-the-flu-there-s-no-point-in-taking-paracetamol-for-relieving-the-symptoms-new-study-suggests-a3138531.html

https://www.abc.net.au/health/talkinghealth/factbuster/stories/2012/07/31/3557498.htm

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/common-cold/