Many Cold Medicines May Not Be Better Than Placebos

At long last, allergy season is over — right in time for cold and flu season to begin! But before you reach for decongestants to help treat either problem, you should probably know that, according to a recent study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice, many decongestants aren't any better than placebos when it comes to actually relieving your symptoms. Sorry, stuffy-nosed folks — I know that's a bummer.

In a new study that looked at the effectiveness of phenylephrine, a common decongestant drug, researchers studied over 500 adults who suffer from allergies. The participants were divided into five groups, four of which were assigned doses of phenylephrine ranging from 10 to 40 mg. The fifth group was given a placebo. After a week of observation, researchers found that none of the participants taking phenylephrine — even those taking the higher doses of the drug — fared any better than those taking the placebo.

This is also not the first time that a study has found phenylephrine to be ineffective, and some researchers are now calling on the FDA to remove phenylephrine from its list of effective nasal decongestant ingredients. Which would have some pretty big effects, since the other most common ingredient in decongestants is pseudoephedrine — which is restricted because it can be theoretically used to make meth.

So if you want an effective decongestant, you probably should check the active ingredient list on your medicines, and go with the ones containing pseudophedrine; otherwise, you, according to this research, you might as well be taking sugar pills.

But decongestants aren't the first medicines accused of working only in our minds. Here are three other things that some experts believe are only as effective as a placebo.

1. Homeopathy

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Based on recent research, it seems that homeopathy is about on par with placebos in terms of how much they help you — meaning the only thing homeopathic cures can be proven to do is make you feel like you're taking steps to feel healthier. Which is not a huge problem, necessarily — according to a 2014 study, half of most medicine's impact on patients is due to the placebo effect.

2. Steroids For Back Pain

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Steroid shots are a common treatment for back pain, but it may turn out that their benefits are mostly in our heads. A growing body of research indicates that in the long term, steroid treatments for back pain are no more effective than placebos.

3. Certain Knee Surgeries


That's right, the placebo effect doesn't just apply to pills and shots! It also applies to medical procedures like surgery. In fact, not long ago, a study found that performing arthroscopic surgery for meniscal tears — one of the most common orthopedic surgeries in the US — didn't help patients any more than performing a fake surgery. So is this type of knee surgery the only surgery to have this issue? Well, there's isn't much evidence on the subject yet, but it's certainly enough to make you wonder.

Placebos aren't always a harmful thing — but it is always good to know if your new meds might not technically help out with anything but your peace of mind.

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