Assessing the benefits of our society not relying on medicine for every medical emergency, Dónal Ó Catháin explains how taking painkillers for a flu may actually just make you sicker

It is a common enough reaction to reach for the appropriate medication when one is undergoing the onset of an ailment. Cough medicine for the eponymous affliction, antacids for heartburn and so forth.

New research brought to light by David Earn of the McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada has called into question, however, the medical benefits of following this status quo. In his study, he earnestly refers to studies that have displayed the lowering of a fever, due to flu medicine, leading to prolonged viral infections and increasing the amount of virus we can pass on to others.

It is an interesting discovery that raises the issue of modern life perplexingly leading to more sickness. For instance, cleaner environments mean one’s immune system is given less of a workout and becomes weaker. This is the so-called ‘Hygiene Hypothesis’. It is a theory which would explain why athsma is the most common chronic disease in the developed world.

Kids aren’t being exposed to enough bacteria in their formative years these days, seemingly. An experiment was carried out on lab mice, who were divided into two groups, raised in different conditions. One was exposed to bacteria akin to that which would be faced in the real world. The other was placed in a sterile environment.

Those raised in the germ-free zone succumbed to more maladies than their dirty counterparts due to their weak untested immune systems. Thankfully all was not lost for the sheltered group, if they were innoculated within the first few weeks of their rodent lives their immune system could catch up in strength with that of their more dirty friends.

It is for similar reasons that Dr Edward Pursell of King’s College London recommends giving painkillers to children under the age of five only to relieve pain, he says, “Fever won’t hurt… it might help.”

On the other hand, the head of respiratory diseases at Public Health England, Professor Nick Phin, is of the opinion that Earn’s study is overly-reliant on non-human data. He says that painkillers are safe and effective against flu.

There is an interesting debate on the extent to which people should employ the use of external substances in their bodies. Some disagree adamantly to the upsetting of the body’s natural healing processes. In this example, painkillers taken for a flu can reduce fevers, but fever is thought to be an antiviral weapon, due to the fact that many viruses have difficulty replicating above the standard body temperature of 37 °C.

The research is unclear of the effect this has on recovery. Similarly, natural sleep is better than its hypnotics-induced counterpart. The latter runs the risk of sleeping pill addiction as well as ‘rebound insomnia’, the worsening of the original insomnia related to tolerance.

In many cases, medication is obviously needed to return the patient to full health. Look at the remarkable effect of polio vaccines and the gargantuan amount of lives that have been saved since their introduction in the 50’s.

Where previously, hundreds of thousands of people died each year from the disease, it now results in less than a thousand deaths annually. For this and similar diseases, the body’s natural response is insufficient and an absence of medical intervention would just lead to prolonged bad health, or worse still, death.

Naturopathy, a sort of natural medicine, promotes vitalism; a belief that a special energy guides bodily processes. A naturopathic approach to sickness typically favours non-invasive treatment and generally avoids the use of surgery and drugs.

A total rejection of biomedicine and modern science is common among naturopaths. Scientific basis for the existence of this vital force is somewhat lacking. It is not an Evidence-Based Medicine (EBM).

An EBM basically comprises the latest empirical research to advocate methods which achieve the greatest health outcomes for their patients. Naturopathy and others like it are instead labelled pseudo-scientific forms of alternative medicine. Some may find the term pseudo-scientific medicine to be somewhat oxymoronic seeing as medicine is the use of actual scientific methods to prevent, cure and treat diseases.

The acknowledged widespread effectiveness of placebos could perhaps be persuasive in convincing even the most scientific minds that alternative medicine may have some benefits. Placebos are blank capsules given to patients who believe it is actual medicine, which will improve their condition.

A surprising number of placebo patients report an enhancement of their condition despite there being no physiological basis for an improvement. It is unclear whether this stated improvement is a subjective perception of a therapeutic effect or whether there is really a physical basis to it.

All this serves to say that the next time you feel sick and reach for medication, ask yourself if you really need it. Consider the ironic notions that it may just make you worse and that you might be better off just taking a blank capsule.