In the last few months, the coronavirus – COVID-19 – has swept across the world. But we are still in the early stages of understanding this fast-moving disease. And therefore, we still don’t have effective treatments or vaccines to help us fight COVID-19. But that’s where the placebo effect comes in.

I’m not for a second suggesting that the placebo effect will cure coronavirus, just that it might help to improve your symptoms in the absence of any highly effective treatments.

Placebo effects and coronaviruses

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that have similar spiky projections on their surfaces, which they use to infect cells. This group of coronaviruses includes diseases such as COVID-19 (the cause of the current epidemic), SARS, MERS and even the common cold.

It’s too early for much research to have been done into COVID-19 and it’s unlikely that any research will be done into it’s relationship with the placebo effect, but other coronaviruses have been examined in this way.

The Barrett Study

A 2011 study in the Annals of Family Medicine explored Placebo Effects and the Common Cold. The study aimed to explore how different types of placebo can affect the severity and duration of illness caused by the common cold.

Which types of placebo did they look at?

The researchers sorted the participants into four different groups:

  1. A control group: People who received no pills and were just left with the natural course of their illness
  2. A pure placebo group: People who were given placebos, but they did not know they were being given a placebo
  3. An open-label placebo group: People who were given echinacea who knew they were getting echinacea – a herbal remedy, that is not scientifically proven to have an effect on colds
  4. A blinded-placebo group: People who were given echinacea, but didn’t know it was echinacea.

What did they look for?

The researchers assessed the participants under for criteria:

  1. Duration of illness
  2. Severity of illness
  3. Neutrophil count (Neutrophils are a type of white blood cell. A high neutrophil count would suggest an infection)
  4. Interleukin 8 levels (Interleukin 8 is a substance secreted by cells that is associated with increasing inflammation as a response to infection)

What did they find?

  • Many of their findings were not considered statistically significant, but there were differences between the groups, showing that taking a placebo reduced the duration and severity of illness, as well as neutrophil count and interleukin 8 levels.
  • Participants in the control group, who did not get any pills, tended to have a longer and more severe illness than those in other groups. This shows that there was a benefit to taking a placebo to reduce severity and duration of illness.
  • Participants who believed in the benefits of echinacea has substantially better results, whether or not, the pills they received actually contained echinacea. This suggests that belief in alternative medicines or the placebo effect may improve the response to placebos.

Was this supported by other studies?

There haven’t been many studies on the placebo effect and the common cold, but a scientist called Eccles, conducted a review of eight clinical trials that compared cough medicine to placebos. He found that 85% of the reduction in cough symptoms is related to the placebo effect and only 15% can be attributable to the active ingredients in the cough medicines.

This demonstrates that there is evidence to suggest that the placebo effect can improve symptoms of the common cold.

But what does this mean for the coronavirus?

Despite belonging to the same family of viruses, the common cold and COVID-19 are different viruses and they don’t work in exactly the same way. However, there are similarities and it is not unreasonable to suggest that if the placebo effect can improve symptoms of one coronavirus, it may also be able to use the same mechanisms to improve the symptoms of another.

So, we can’t know anything for certain until more research has been conducted, but it is perfectly possible that the placebo effect may help to alleviate some of the symptoms associated with COVID-19. We’d recommend that you still follow all the guidelines laid out by health professionals regarding the COVID-19 epidemic. But if you do get coronavirus, the placebo effect may help to give you some relief.

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