Ancient Treatment For The Common Cold


In a recent article we discussed Celsus’s ideas on treatment for depression and melancholy.  We now look at his prescription for dealing with the common cold, an ailment that until this day has defied a consistent cure.  What is interesting about his treatment suggestions is that they seem to be about as effective as anyone could give a cold sufferer today.  Judge for yourself.  The following information is taken from his De Medicina (IV.5).

The common cold is called by the Romans gravedo and coryza by the Greeks.  Its features are stuffed-up nostrils, a sore throat, and a dry cough.  Headache, ringing in the ears, and “salty saliva” (sub eadem salsa est saliva) are also experienced by the patient.  The common cold is never fatal, but can be a debilitating irritant lasting a long time if not properly treated.  Please note that the information in this article is presented for historical purposes only, and is not intended to serve as an endorsement of Celsus’s ideas or as medical advice for your situation.  If you are suffering from an ailment or other condition, you should consult with your doctor as soon as possible.

Celsus recommends that the sufferer stay out of the sun, and avoid hot baths, sexual intercourse (presumably because of the possibility of transmitting the cold through mucous membranes), and wine.  Walking is a good idea, followed by a rub-down of the head and face of about “fifty strokes” (caput atque os supra quinquagiens perfricandum).

Once the phlegm in the nose has reduced and the nostrils more open for breathing, we can then enter a hot bath.  After this more food can be eaten, along with wine.  If the nose is still stuffed up after the fourth day of the cold, the person can drink Aminaean wine (vinum Aminaeum) followed by water.


In cases of serious colds, the sufferer should do a lot of walking in the first few days of the cold, presumably to get the heart rate up and improve circulation.  Walks should be followed by massaging of the lower limbs, face, chest, and head.  The quantity of food ingested should be about half of what the person would normally take.  Fish or meat can be eaten, but preferably in small amounts.  In cases of severe colds, more sleep is desirable, as well as time off from “all work” (abstinendum a negotiis omnibus).  It is reassuring to see that Celsus is a practical man as well as a humane one.

Celsus also recommends the following for colds:

  1.  First day:  Lie in bed and cover the head, or wrap wool around the throat.
  2.  Second day:  Get up, avoid drinking alcohol, and drink only water.
  3.  Third day:  Try to eat a small quantity of meat or fish.  When he goes to the bath, he should immerse his head and face with hot water, inhaling the steam until he sweats, and then drink some wine.
  4. Later:  Light, dry, cold food is preferred over heavy meals.  The patient should continue the rubbing and massages, along with the walks, until the cold dissipates.

This is Celsus’s recommended treatment for the common cold.  Little seems to have changed in this treatment since the first century A.D.  The common cold is the most ubiquitous of all ailments, especially in winter, so it may be useful for the reader to see how this problem was dealt with in previous eras.

The information in this article is presented for historical purposes only and is not intended as any specific medical treatment or healthcare regimen.  It is not intended to serve as an endorsement or recommendation of Celsus’s ideas.  Readers looking for medical advice for their situation should consult with their physician.


To learn more, read my Thirty-Seven.