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What is your approach when you know you can’t cure?

The upper respiratory tract infection or common cold is the commonest reason people  see a doctor. There is no ‘cure’. The symptoms last three to ten days and eventually resolve. Some symptoms take longer to resolve than others. Those with a cold have to bear with the discomfort for a few days or even weeks.

Placebo treatment has been reported to improve subjective and objective measures of disease in up to 30–40% of patients with a wide range of clinical conditions. A review of 8 clinical trials on the effects of antitussive medicines on cough associated with acute upper respiratory tract infection shows that 85% of the reduction in cough is related to treatment with placebo, and only 15% attributable to the active ingredient. R Eccles

Twenty-seven patients were randomized to placebo treatment and 27 to the no-treatment group (mean age 22.6 years). The median difference between post- and pretreatment CF was −3 in the no-treatment group and −18 in the placebo group (p = .0003). There was a significant increase in CST in the placebo group compared with no treatment (p = .027). Lee et al

However is it ethical to recommend treatment which is not proven to have any pharmacological effect?

OTC cough medicines do not appear more effective than placebo in relieving symptoms of acute cough. Even if statistically significant, effect sizes were small and of doubtful clinical relevance. The number of trials in each category was small, and the results of this systematic review have to be interpreted with caution. Based on the available evidence from a small number of studies, we cannot recommend OTC cough medicines as a first line treatment for children with acute cough. Schroder and Fahey

Experts are still pondering. Meantime what will you do today when you see that person with a cold who is still coughing a week later?
It has traditionally been assumed that deception is an indispensible component of successful placebo use. Therefore, placebos have been attacked because they are deceptive, and defended on the grounds that the deception is illusory or that the beneficent intentions of the physician justify the deception. However, a proper understanding of the placebo effect shows that deception need play no essential role in eliciting this powerful therapeutic modality; physicians can use nondeceptive means to promote a positive placebo response in their patients. Brody

Although the available evidence is incomplete and confusing at times there can be little doubt that the prevalence of placebo use outside of clinical trials is not negligible and that views and attitudes on placebos use differ considerably among individuals, both health care professionals and patients. Further research is needed to clarify these issues. Fassler et al

Picture by Sarah-Rose