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Common Cold Myths

Posted on November 13, 2013
By Nikki Martinez

When the temperature drops, you better believe the cold and flu isn’t too far away. And with both come a lot of ways to treat them, “cure” them, or just get through them! But what is folklore and what really can work to help battle the sniffles, sneezes, and everything in between? Well, ABC News lays a few Myths and Facts out so you can have a little help in your toolbag and take care of what really needs attention on:

 

Fact or Myth? If you get the flu vaccine too early in the year, your protection will wear off before flu season ends.

Answer: Myth

Some physicians already have their first flu vaccine shipments in, so people who believe this myth may be holding out when they don’t need to.The flu vaccine — once understocked and reserved for the people most at risk — is now readily available and recommended for everyone, so some doctors receive their shipments as early as August.

“I have now heard, this season, several times already, a concerned expressed that you can get vaccinated too early — that you should wait until November because your protection may not last through February,” when you are statistically most likely to get the flu, said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt Medical School. But the vaccine lasts for at least a year, he said.

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Fact or Myth? You can catch the flu from a flu shot.

Answer: Myth

“That’s the biggest myth, that’s really huge. And it inhibits many people from thinking about getting their influenza injection,” said Schaffner. The idea rises from the popular misconception that the flu vaccine shot is a weakened form of the flu virus. The flu vaccine contains components of the flu virus but not a complete virus. “There’s no way that the shot can give you a complete influenza virus that can then make you ill,” Schaffner said.

The reason many might believe that the vaccine can cause the flu, said Schaffner, is that people tend to get the flu vaccine in October or November, and then catch a cold from someone else. Since the viruses that cause cold are contagious 24 hours before the symptoms appear, someone who had a flu shot and then caught a cold might believe he or she has the flu and can’t think of another source because the person whom they got it from didn’t appear sick.

Of course, in recent years, another form of the flu vaccine — a nasal spray known as FluMist — has also become popular. The nasal spray, Schaffner explains, is a “tamed virus.” In this case, it has been engineered to multiply in the nose, but it can’t get down into the rest of the body because the rest of the body is a degree or two warmer than the nose, and the virus is incapable of multiplying at that higher temperature.

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Fact or Myth? Stress increases your chances of getting a cold or the flu.

Answer: Undetermined

“This is a very good question and a question we don’t know all the answers to,” said Dr. Erica Brownfield, an associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine.

But while medicine may not be able to tell us if stress increases the risk of catching a cold or the flu, stress can make either of those conditions worse once you have it. “What we do know is that those people who are under chronic stress are probably more likely to develop complications from a cold or the flu,” said Brownfield. While people may need to relax once they’re sick, the anxiety of putting yourself at higher risk isn’t worth adding to an already stressful lifestyle.

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Fact or Myth? Lingering in wet clothes, going outside in cold weather with wet hair or just being cold can increase your chances of getting a cold.

Answer: Myth

“No, being out in the cold or being cold or having wet clothes does not increase your chance of having a cold or the flu,” said Dr. Jon Abramson, chairman of the department of pediatrics at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. “This is one of the myths that do exist both about the common cold or the flu, and clearly from a lot of studies this is not the case.”

Since this myth persists, the likely reason behind it is the rise in cases once the temperature drops in the United States. While the viruses are more common during these times of the year, the consensus among physicians seems to be that this is caused by people staying indoors to avoid the cold — not from the cold itself.

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Fact or Myth? Flying on an airplane will increase your risk of catching a cold or the flu.

Answer: Fact

Riding on an airplane may increase your flu risk, but it’s not clear if it makes it any higher than do other crowded areas. “I think anytime that you are in a crowd of people, the risk that you might catch a cold or catch the flu is increased. We tend to catch these illnesses from other people. And so when you’re in a crowd, the likelihood that you’ll come in contact with somebody who’s infected naturally goes up,” said Dr. Ronald Turner, a pediatrician at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Your greatest cold risk may not be from strangers in a crowd but from little ones close to you.

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Fact or Myth? Echinacea or zinc can help prevent or shorten the length of a cold.

Answer: Probably a Myth

Both zinc and echinacea have had a number of studies done on them, and neither has been shown conclusively to help battle colds. “There have been a number of studies of echinacea. Some have purported to show some modest benefit. However, I think the weight of the evidence is that echinacea has no benefit, either on incidence of illness or severity of illness,” said Turner.

He said the results for zinc have been similarly ambiguous. While the evidence is not entirely conclusive, Turner said, he wouldn’t be rushing out to get his hands on some zinc.

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Fact or Myth? Putting on extra clothing or covering yourself in blankets can help you “sweat out” a cold.

Answer: Myth

Frustration with an illness we can’t cure may lead to these attempts, explained Dr. Lisa Bernstein, an assistant professor of medicine at EmoryUniversity. “Unfortunately we haven’t gotten smart enough in modern medicine to cure the common cold, so a lot of people are looking for their own way to do so. One of those is to possibly cover yourself with blankets and try to sweat out a cold.” But trying to sweat out a cold won’t accomplish much, she said.

However, feeling better may be just as important as getting better, Bernstein said, especially with an illness that takes time to get over. “Do whatever makes you feel better — whether it’s putting more blankets on if you feel a chill, drinking warm liquids, or taking over-the-counter medication. It’s just going to take time,” she said.

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Fact or Myth? “Feed a cold, starve a fever.” Or “Starve a cold, feed a fever.”

Answer: Myth

Regardless of which version you’ve heard, you won’t be hearing either from your doctor. “That’s a very common old wives tale to say feed a cold and starve a fever. Unfortunately you really shouldn’t do the extreme of either when you’re treating a cold or the flu,” said Bernstein. Forcing yourself to eat won’t accomplish much, she said. Instead, you should focus on drinking enough. “It’s very important to stay hydrated when you have upper respiratory infection or a cold, and especially the flu, as well, because when you sweat a lot you’re going to lose a lot of moisture,” said Bernstein.

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Fact or Myth? Chicken soup, hot liquids or honey can help you feel better sooner if you have a cold.

Answer: Fact

“You might have heard from your mother or your grandmother in the past that chicken soup is the cure for the common cold,” said Bernstein. While this tip goes at least as far back as the 12th century physician Maimonides (who some historians believe heard it from his mother), there is now solid medical evidence behind a remedy that was once only thought of as merely a comfort food.

In 2000, University of Nebraska researchers showed this old remedy had wider benefits. “There was a study … that showed that it does actually have an anti-inflammatory effect, mobilizing the neutrophils or the inflammatory cells and making them work a little bit better — and also keeping the mucus in the nose moving so that the virus, which sits in the nose, would mobilize a little bit faster and, maybe, potentially, get you better faster,” explained Bernstein.

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Fact or Myth? There is no way to reduce the duration of a cold or the flu.

Answer: Myth

While the mythical status of most of these remedies may suggest that there’s no way out of a layover with cold or the flu, there appears to be one way to cut down sick days from the latter if you are quick about it. “You can, if you catch genuine influenza early enough, actually take an antiviral that can shorten the duration of the illness,” said Schaffner. But the key to cutting the flu short this way is to act immediately. “You have to get in to see the doctor within the first 48 hours,” he said.

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