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Before the days of paracetamol and throat lozenges, how was the common cold treated? A fascinating book by 18th century physician William Buchan has the answers.

‘Domestic Medecine; Or, a A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Disease‘ details the symptoms and treatments of common, and sometimes life-threatening, illnesses that were part of daily life in the 18th century. Buchan recommends how he, as a physician, would treat such maladies and details some home remedies that might not be quite as effective.

I don’t want to worry you about the dangerous illnesses to which our beloved Pride and Prejudice characters might have been exposed (let’s imagine they all had very strong constitutions so would have resisted anything too serious) but thought I would have a look at cures for the common cold, as it’s something most of can probably relate to. Especially if like me, you woke up with a sore throat this morning – any remedy is worth a try when it’s painful to swallow!

William Buchan surprised me with his approach to effective treatments. Some are very similar to what a doctor might recommend today; I was expecting the opposite! Here’s a summary of what he says…

The early stages of a cold

At the first sign of a cold, which he describes as “oppression of the breast, a stuffing of the nose, unusual weariness, pain of the head” – symptoms I imagine most of us experience at least once a year – he advises:

  • eating less
  • and abstaining from strong liquors. So no getting drunk! This recommendation wasn’t to lessen the patient’s spirits further; it had a rather serious side as liquor could worsen the illness and lead to inflammatory fever. So best to stay away from alcohol when feeling under the weather!


This is what you should and shouldn’t eat. Not particularly appetising but then you don’t always feeling like eating when you have a cold…

YES to:

  • Light bread pudding
  • Gruel
  • Veal or chicken broth
  • Panado (if anyone can tell me what this is, I would love to know!)
  • Toasted bread
  • Water-gruel sweetened with a little honey
  • And for those accustomed to drinking liquor, a compromise: wine-whey instead of gruel.

NO to:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Other nourishing diet

Thinking about what a doctor would recommend today, Buchan might do well as a physician now!

Other things to try:

  • Staying in bed longer 
  • Encouraging a gentle sweat by drinking tea. Buchan had witnessed this cure a cold in one day!
  • Gentle exercise. When feeling a little better, Buchan recommends walking, horse-riding or riding in a carriage.
  • Bathing feet and legs in warm water. 

So there we have it, the 18th century guide to riding out a cold. Worth a try?