Science Seen Physicist and Time One author Colin Gillespie helps you understand your world.

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Cold Comfort: Physics Cures the Common Cold

It’s still the sniffle season and there’s still no cure for the common cold. So says the Mayo Clinic; so say many others. They are wrong.

Here is the long-sought cure. No kidding. It turns out to be spectacularly unspectacular. It is simple physics. (That’s too bad; if it were complex chemistry it would be worth a mint.) 

The physics? Well, a cold is caused by any one of about four hundred kinds of virus. Viruses use proteins to hijack your cells and replicate. Quantum theory explains the hydrogen bonds that hold each protein molecule in a unique shape that, as a key fits a lock, enables the molecule to do its work. Heat causes molecules to move about (first explained by Albert Einstein in his doctoral thesis). This disrupts hydrogen bonds and bends protein molecules out of shape. At 148 °F you can scramble eggs (or burn your mouth) by breaking bonds in proteins. A lower temperature can break enough bonds to temporarily prevent a virus from doing its thing―such as invading your cells and multiplying in them.

How can this physics cure your cold? When you feel that pre-cold sore throat coming on, make isotonic saline: Add a pinch of salt to a half a glass of hot tap water and stir. It should be almost but not quite too hot to dip your thumb for a few seconds. Microwave or add cold water to get this right.

Gargle with two mouthfuls; it should feel hot but not scalding. Then (key step): snort the rest back through your nose and spit it out. This too will feel uncomfortable. But less so than the cold that you avoid. Repeat if the pre-cold throat returns.

Why does it work? It’s simple. It’s the heat that hurts the virus. (Salt merely makes the water friendly for your tissues; Mayo Clinic got the salt but not the heat). At this early stage the virus is close to the tissue surface. The water temperature (<115 °F or 45 °C) and brief exposure are enough to physically discombobulate the virus proteins without damaging throat tissues. This gives your immune system a chance to do its job before virus replication runs amok.

Big benefits: You need never suffer through a cold again! And we can add a $25 billion boost to the U.S. economy from saved sick days when word gets out. So please tell your friends.

This cure has a problem: It is free! So it won’t feature in Big Pharma’s research program. But could some keen kids turn it into a sure-win project for a science fair near you?


The Mayo Clinic’s near miss,

On productivity losses related to the common cold, see T.J. Bramley et al (2002), “Productivity losses related to the common cold”, J. Occup. Environ. Med., vol. 44, p. 822; abstract, National Center for Biotechnology Information,

Other reading:

Norbert Strauman (2008), “On Einstein’s Doctoral Thesis”,

London Centre for Nanotechnology, “A quantum theory of hydrogen bonds”,

On hydrogen bonds and proteins, see “Hydrogen Bonding”, ChemWiki, University of California at Davis,

On protein shape and function, see “Protein Structure”, Nature Education,


  1. Dennis D'Asaro 2014-09-24 at 6:30 pm #

    A woman I knew growing up said her father, a physician, always said what was good for a cold was to snort sea water. [Presumably some comfortable distance from a volcanic vent, then].

  2. Chris Cuoco 2014-09-23 at 3:29 pm #

    Love your blog, Colin. So, where are the clinical trials showing the hot salty water gargle and snort procedure actually work? I’ve had sinus problems for years and often irrigate my sinuses by shooting warm buffered water up my nose with a nasal syringe. I assume this will work as long as I along the salt water to go all the way back to the back of my throat. It’s very therapeutic. Now I’ll have to add some more heat to see if it will help all the more.

  3. MIke 2014-04-28 at 7:55 am #

    So… the NetiPot had it right all these years.

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