Uncommon Cures for the Common Cold

I was thinking about medicines this morning. As I’ve complained before, it’s been a terrible winter and so I’m fending off what seems like the fourth or fifth cold of the season already (having a toddler who brings home germs from play groups is part of this too).

My medicine cabinet is full of open boxes of cold remedies like Cold-Eeze, Zycam, Robitussin and others. Most of these over-the-counter medicines would taste neutral, bitter or worse were it not for the window-dressing of artificial flavorings like cherry, citrus or that generic, unidentifiable kind of sweetness you might associate with Smarties and other completely unnatural candies. Similarly, they’re all far too sweet for my taste; almost all of them make me a little nauseous.

Part of the reason for this of course is that it’s probably unwise, for obvious concerns, to make medicines so tasty that you look forward to the next dose. Still, it seems possible to me to create a sub-class of cold remedies that have more subtle, less powerful flavorings. I’d probably buy a cough syrup that tastes like some kind of lightly sweetened tea, for example, or a throat lozenge that has the flavor of rice candy, or a zinc supplement that comes in butterscotch. These could and probably should still taste a little bit unpleasant, but they don’t need to be as brutally sugary as they are now.

You Are What You Sneeze

This is all a bit off topic for this blog, I know, but there is some connection to design here. Nearly all of the basic goods we consume now exist in some more specialized, more eclectic and yes more expensive form. There are artisinal cheeses, organic breakfast cereals, grass-fed beef, raw milk, and many more bobo alternatives to the basic stuff our parents used to buy unquestioningly.

This trend has a lot in common with the rise in prominence of design over the past decade or two; it’s intimately linked with our increasing interest in consuming things that are more sophisticated and more elitist. I think we have to recognize that in large part design is about enabling more conspicuous, self-congratulatory forms of consumption, and while sophisticated foods are not strictly a form of design, they are complementary to the designed lifestyle that many of us aspire to, and that many of us promote. I’m not implying a value judgment here, because I am clearly in the target demographic for a lot of these goods. I’m just remarking that it can be striking when a whole category of goods like medicines is omitted from that kind of thinking; it just makes me think that it’s only a matter of time before I can buy a bottle of organic, Napoleon cherry-flavored NyQuil. And I’ll probably buy it, too.

  1. I’m on my fourth or fifth cold of the season too (and unfortunately can’t blame it on a baby). There are less sweet/artificial medicines at health food stores. This company called Zand makes organic cough drops from brown rice syrup that aren’t too sweet. And they actually have a new green tea flavor. 🙂

  2. I have been lucky this year, but last year I spent a lot of time buying cough syrup, etc.

    I became aware of a slight sub-class. The sugar-free. Cough syrup (and antacids) are not just made in this guise by the big names but are generally several degrees more subtle, as you posited. I presume they have awful artificial sweeteners, but way, way less of them than I’d expect.

    Maybe (along with Bart’s suggestion) the trend is already starting.

    The possibly more interesting part is they are all hard to find. Even when by giant pharma, you have to search around. Most pharmacists are only vaguely aware they exist. Not sure why that is. They are too cool to be stocked?

  3. When I was a teen-ager, we changed dentists. He was older and only a few years from retirement. I have a mouthful of fillings (all but two have been replaced) and he took one look and remarked, “Let me guess, your Mom gave you a cough syrup whenever you had a cold right?” For the life of me, I can’t think of the name of it but was incredibly sweet, yellow syrup. It was this guy’s theory, rightly or wrongly, that cough syrup was to blame for a lot of my cavities. Those syrups are 90 percent corn syrup and they stick to your teeth for ever, just destroying them. His analogy was it was like drinking a Cola syrup before they added the water. He ended by saying in the future, if I had a cold, take something not in syrup form. Years later, we had two landlords who were dentists and one day one of them met me on the porch. I obviously had a cold and her response was, “whatever you do, avoid cough syrup”. Was this some weird piece of advice they told all dental students? Whatever it is, I have avoided cough syrups ever since (only occasionally taking Buckely’s at my darkest hour of need).

  4. What I would call organic cold treatment is not only designer packaging. There are actually dead simple alternatives, but they may date back to your grandmothers instead of your parents. I use only two things:

    The first is a self-made saline solution instead of expensive nasal sprays. Just mix a cup of cold water and a teaspoon of salt. Use a few drops once or twice a day. I got a great empty but refillable spray tube for free at the pharmacy.

    The other one is soft sweet black licorice, which incidentally also contains a lot of sugar. It’s a great but temporary relief for your throat. And no guilt about sugared medicine, because it is actually candy!

  5. Funny you post this now. Mike Davidson just posted the other day that Pine Bros. cough drops are back. Apparently these were well thought of “back in the day”, and someone bought the company and is trying to recreate them using the original formula.

    Post here


  6. All January I fought a hacking cough with sliced ginger root in hot water with a dollop of honey and a finger (or two) of Scotch. It didn’t cure me, but it didn’t hurt me either. I can’t say I’ve noticed people clamoring for organic meds but apparently Toronto has a number of “bespoke pharmacies” where they tailor drugs for you like an olde fashioned apothecary. The Globe and Mail wrote about it here: link

  7. Prevention is key. I used to get bad colds too. About five years ago, I started taking a *good* multivitamin and 2000iu of vitamin D. I haven’t had more than a slight one day bug since, and I’ve been around some very sick people.

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