Chasing Symptoms vs Finding a Cure

I’ve got a really lousy cold.  You know, the kind that fills your head like a water balloon, makes your throat feel like someone has raked long finger nails down your esophagus and each time you cough, your entire body hurts.  Yeah, the “common” cold.

It started Saturday with the general malaise, intermittent cough, slight headache…. and I knew.  Don’t we always?  Quick — run for the zinc, echinacea, airborne — whatever you can find!  Trying to stave it off seems like the only way to handle it. Pass me another box of tissues, please.

Problem was — I was still in Tennessee attending the conference I wrote about last week.  No medicine chest :-(  The 13-hour drive home on Sunday was no picnic either!  But since then, I’ve spent most of my time resting, drinking orange juice, blowing my nose and popping sudafed.  Many years ago I had a cold and didn’t take care of it, and it developed into pneumonia.  That will NOT happen again.

With so much quiet time — the road trip Sunday, plus bed rest since then — I’ve had time to ponder the common cold….

I remember reading years ago that a true cure had been invented, but had been squelched because pharmaceutical companies make so much money with drugs that treat the symptoms that they would all go broke if there really was a cure!  Hmmm…. maybe….. but that doesn’t help me today.

I know there have been tests on zinc and ecinacea — maybe they could cure the cold, or at least make it less of a drain (so to speak) on our systems… but still a cold seems to last at least 7 days.  That doesn’t strike me as much of a cure!

Then my mind wanders to the general “symptoms vs cure” conundrum that patients get pulled into every day, usually unaware that treating symptoms may, in fact, prevent the cure…. hear me out….

Suppose I am running a fever.  It means that I have some form of infection, and my body is trying to heal it.  So I take a tylenol or an aspirin and my fever goes down.  BUT, the aspirin only treated the fever, it didn’t cure me.  So I still have the infection — which could spread and make me sicker.

Suppose Fred’s arm is aching.  Fred works in a physical job, and he can’t afford a day off from work.  Fred takes an ibuprophen or something else to make the ache go away so he can keep working.  The pain subsides a little — but Fred suffers a heart attack on the job that day because the aching arm was really a symptom of that impending heart attack.

When we have symptoms, no matter what they are, and we see the doctor, often the doctor gives us something to treat the symptoms — but — that doesn’t mean we are on the road to a cure!  It’s a relief not to deal with the symptoms anymore, but does that really help us in the long run? 

In many cases, people go undiagnosed for years, but they are taking drugs left and right to depress their symptoms, some of which may be masking the very symptoms that might help them get a diagnosis. 

If you are a patient who is undiagnosed, consider asking your doctor if it’s possible a treatment or drug you are taking is getting in the way of your diagnosis, masking your real problem.  And, take some time yourself to review each drug you are taking to see what symptoms it is supposed to overcome.  (Here’s a list of websites that can help you.)  There may be a nugget in there that can move your diagnosis quest forward.

There you go.  And now I’m going to go swallow some more nyquil and take a nap.

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1 Response to “Chasing Symptoms vs Finding a Cure”


  1. 1 martygrn August 15, 2007 at 9:36 am

    I would just like to clear up one issue in your otherwise wonderful post. There is no cure for the common cold and there will never be one. The common cold is somewhat like the flu virus. You only ever get a cold virus one time. You will never again get sick with that specific cold virus again because your body builds an immunity to that virus. The problem comes in when you consider there are thousands and thousands of different cold viruses. Since a virus is not alive, by current definition, you cannot ‘kill’ it like antibiotics do to bacteria. This is the same reason why there is such a problem when trying to find a ‘cure’ for HIV.

    The cold, flu and HIV virus are the same in the sense that what defines them is simply a virus that attacks the body in a certain way. Someone who contracts HIV today has a virus that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the HIV of last year, or the year before, etc. This mutating that viruses do combined with the fact that they are not ‘alive’ is why we are stuck with only treating symptoms. Hopefully, technology will advance someday to allow us to ‘crack the viral code’, as it were.


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