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Busting the 10 Biggest Cold & Flu Myths

The Cold Hard Facts about Colds & the Flu

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Eat chicken soup. Bump up your vitamin C intake. Don’t step outside with wet hair. Each year as cold and flu season approaches, you probably hear these common tricks for avoiding illness. However, not all of the prevailing wisdom about viral infections stands up to science. Keep reading to get the facts about 10 of the most common misconceptions about colds and the flu.
 
Myth #1: Going outside in the winter can cause a cold.
Your mom might have warned you about running off to school with damp hair or heading out for weekend fun without a warm coat. Many people still believe that you can catch a cold just by being cold. However, you can only get a cold or the flu by being exposed to those viruses. Mere exposure to cold temperatures won’t cause an illness.
 
So, why are we more likely to be sick in the winter? Researchers have offered various reasons, from the increased proximity to other people (everyone goes inside when it’s cold outside) to drier air, which might make our mucus membranes less resilient to viruses.
 
Myth #2: Mega doses of vitamin C can stave off a cold.
At the first sign of a scratchy throat or runny nose, many of us have been taught to grab citrus fruit or vitamin C supplement. Water-soluble vitamin C is cheap, easy to find and a common additive to everything from breakfast cereals to fruit snacks to sugary juices.
 
However, the validity of vitamin C as a treatment for a cold or as a way of preventing colds is controversial. Some studies have found that vitamin C reduces the duration of colds and lessens symptoms; others have found no evidence for the salutary benefits of vitamin C.
 
While it won’t hurt to temporarily increase your vitamin C intake, too much vitamin C can cause abdominal cramps, heartburn, diarrhea and even kidney stones. If you’re consuming a gram or more of vitamin C a day, check with your physician.
 
Myth #3: The flu is a more severe form of a cold.
Flu symptoms might be more severe than cold symptoms, but these two illnesses are caused by different viruses. A high fever, headache and muscle aches are more common with the flu, as is tiredness, while a stuffy nose, sneezing and sore throat are more common with a cold. A productive cough is also more common with a cold.

Myth #4: Antibiotics will make a cold or flu symptoms better.
Antibiotics can treat bacterial infections, but they won’t address the core cause of a cold or the flu. In fact, taking antibiotics when you don’t need them promotes antibiotic resistance, a phenomenon in which bacteria overexposed to antibiotics become more able to survive exposure to them. This can mean that antibiotics don’t work when they’re needed.
 
Because a bacterial infection can sometimes arise as a result of the flu, it doesn’t hurt to check with your doctor if you’re short of breath, have chest pains, experience a fever above 103 degrees or pass out. Still, a simple cold or flu virus won’t respond to these medications.
 
Myth #5: If you don’t get a flu shot early, it won’t work.
Some people believe that it’s too late for a flu shot if it’s already January or February. Winter, after all, might be almost over by then, depending where you live. It takes about two weeks for a flu shot to start protecting you as your body develops antibodies against the inactive or weakened viruses in the vaccine. So, the earlier you’re vaccinated, the more protected you’ll be. However, because flu season can last into March or even longer, it pays to get vaccinated even during late winter months. Another reason to get the shot early, if you're considering it though, is supply. Sometimes flu vaccines can be hard to find if others beat you to the punch!
 
Myth #6: You can get the flu from the flu shot.
Due to side effects like headaches, fever and nausea from the vaccine shot, as well as additional side effects (fever, muscle aches, vomiting and headache) caused by the nasal spray vaccine, many people believe that this vaccine causes the flu itself. This is not the case.
 
The flu shot contains inactive or dead flu viruses, and these cannot cause the flu. The newer nasal spray contains weakened, cold-adapted viruses, which cannot survive the warm temperatures inside the body.
 
Myth #7: The stomach flu (nausea, vomiting and diarrhea) is a type of the flu.
While many people associate a digestive illness that causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea with the flu, the flu is primarily a respiratory infection. The illness that most people term stomach flu is viral gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and large intestines that causes diarrhea and vomiting. But both the flu and viral gastroenteritis can be caused by a variety of viruses.
 
Myth #8: You should feed a cold but starve a fever.
A common misconception about recovering from viral illness is that eating more will provide relief from a cold, while less food is best for a fever. Unfortunately, there’s very little scientific basis for this belief. In truth, your body needs adequate nutrition and fluids to recover from any illness. Cutting back on calories doesn’t help. You might not feel like eating as much as usual when you have a fever, but eating less isn’t recommended for recovery. Instead, try to keep your diet as normal as possible, and be sure to stay hydrated.
 
Myth #9: A cough that lasts longer than a week requires medical attention.
A week or so of painful hacking is more than enough for most of us, but when is it time to throw in the towel and visit your doctor? Many people guess one to two weeks, and almost everyone surveyed in a recent study believed that a cough should resolve by the two-week mark. But the average cold actually lasts 17-18 days, according to a recent study.
 
Asking for an antibiotic just a few days in won’t help, and many people who do so quickly return, seeking a different medication. If you’re wheezing, choking, having difficulty breathing, coughing up blood or unable to swallow easily, you might require a trip to the physician, but an everyday cough can easily linger for longer that you might think. Be patient.
 
Myth #10: Breastfeeding moms should use formula if they have a cold or the flu.
Some nursing mothers believe that nursing a baby and a cold at the same time will result in the transmission of the illness from mother to baby. However, by the time the mother becomes ill, her nursing baby has already been exposed to the virus—and mom's antibodies. Nursing might actually protect the baby by sharing these antibodies, so there’s no need to switch to formula.
 
With this year’s cold and flu season approaching, keep these quick tips in mind when avoiding a sick co-worker or hoping for a healthier holiday. Anything we believe in can have a positive placebo effect, but unnecessary antibiotics or cutting back on calories needlessly might be more harmful than helpful.

Sources
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Misconceptions and Seasonal Flu and Flu Vaccines," www.cdc.gov, accessed on August 19, 2013.

County of Los Angeles Public Health, "Flu Myths and Facts," publichealth.lacounty.gov, accessed on August 19, 2013.

Duke Health, "Myth or Fact: Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever," www.dukehealth.org, accessed on August 19, 2013.

Flu.gov, "Vaccination and Vaccine Safety," www.flu.gov, accessed on August 19, 2013.

Harvard Medical School, "When to Contact Your Doctor about Flu Symptoms," www.health.harvard.edu, accessed on August 19, 2013.

Harvard Medical School, "10 Flu Myths," www.health.harvard.edu, accessed on August 19, 2013.

Mayo Clinic, "Is it possible to take too much vitamin C?" www.mayoclinic.com, accessed on August 19, 2013.

Oregon State University, "Vitamin C and the Common Cold," lpi.oregonstate.edu, accessed on August 19, 2013.

Rush University Medical Center, "Five Things You Should Know about Winter Health," www.rush.edu, accessed on August 19, 2013.

State of New Jersey Department of Health, "Myths and Facts about Breastfeeding," nj.gov, accessed on August 19, 2013.

The University of Georgia College of Public Health, "How Long Should a Cough Last," www.publichealth.uga.edu, accessed on August 19, 2013.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Colds and Flu," www.foh.dhhs.gov, accessed on August 19, 2013.

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About The Author

Robin Donovan Robin Donovan
Robin Donovan is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer and magazine journalist with experience covering health, medicine, science, business, technology and design.

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