Is there any truth to the old sayings about colds and the flu? Here, we bust the myths and facts to help keep you healthy.
December is smack dab in the middle of cold and flu season, and many of us will succumb by the time spring rolls around. While we think we know what causes colds and flu, or what minimizes their effects, how much of what we “know” is actually true?
Getting a cold or the flu is inconvenient, not serious.
Mostly true: Up to 20 percent of us catch the flu annually, with kids being more susceptible. For most of us, that means feeling tired, achy, congested, and feverish for a week or so. We miss work or school but recover and get on with our lives. For some, the flu means a trip to the hospital. For a small percentage of people, particularly the elderly and children under 6 months old, it can be life threatening.
While colds are less debilitating, they can lead to serious illness, such as pneumonia, when combined with weakened immune systems, asthma, or respiratory problems.
Once we get sick, we’re safe for the rest of the season.
False: The influenza virus is tricky. Its dominant strains change every year, plus there are usually several different types of flu virus during any one season. Even if you get the flu and develop antibodies against that strain, it’s possible to be reinfected by another type. Remember, while cold and flu season generally begins in late fall, it doesn’t peak until February or even March.
Colds are caused by more than 200 different viruses, though rhinoviruses are the most prevalent. It’s not called the common cold for nothing. North Americans suffer more than 1 billion colds annually, with adults averaging two to four colds a year; kids even more. That’s a lot of tissues.
Cold weather causes colds and flu.
Mostly false: Although cold and flu season coincides with colder months in North America, winter does not cause either; the timing is simply part of the virus’s natural cycle. No matter what our mothers told us, going outside without a hat or coat or sitting in a draft won’t make us sick.
Cold weather is not totally off the hook. Flu and cold viruses can withstand cold temperatures, while winter’s dry, chilly air allows them to spread more readily. The fact that we tend to get twice as many colds in winter may be connected to the fact that we’re indoors more, keeping us in closer contact with others who are already sick.
When going outside, though, consider covering your nose with a scarf, as some British researchers believe inhaling cold air decreases the nose’s immune system, making infections more likely.
We’re more likely to catch the flu or a cold on long airplane flights.
True: Long lines, lost baggage, and cancelled flights are often part of air travel. Unfortunately, so is getting sick. In fact, you’re twice as likely to get sick on a plane as on the ground. While we blame post-flight colds on recirculation of air inside aircraft, the real culprit is very dry cabin air—as low as 5 percent on long flights compared to the normal level of 20 percent. The dry air thickens the protective mucous layer in our nose, making it unable to trap viruses.
Throw in miniscule personal air space and low outside air replacement rates, especially in newer types of aircraft, and it’s no wonder planes suffer from sick building syndrome.
To reduce the chances of getting sick, stay well hydrated and use either a personal saline nasal mist or a mist dispenser with distilled water to keep the mucous layer thin during the flight. Follow up with a neti pot to rinse out viruses when back on the ground.
Conventional over-the-counter remedies cure colds or flu.
False: Over-the-counter (OTC) remedies can’t cure colds or flu. Instead, they work to suppress symptoms of aches, fever, and congestion, but are often ineffective or counterproductive.
Many health care practitioners today suggest letting a low-grade fever do its natural job of stimulating the immune system to suppress the growth of viruses and bacteria.
While short-term use of conventional nasal decongestants can shrink swollen membranes and ease breathing, prolonged use has a rebound effect, causing nasal swelling and worsening symptoms. A neti pot with saltwater loosens mucus without the side effects of OTC decongestants.
Most OTC cough medicines are not effective and should never be given to children under the age of four.
Taking antibiotics fights colds and flu.
False: Because colds and flu are caused by viruses, not bacteria, antibiotics have no effect on them. However, because colds and flu weaken the immune system, it’s possible to develop secondary bacterial infections such as bronchitis, ear infections, sinusitis, and pneumonia that require antibiotics.
It’s important to note that taking antibiotics to prevent possible complications is counterproductive and can result in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, making bacterial infections harder to treat. Flu or cold symptoms that drag on or worsen could signal a bacterial co-infection requiring medical attention.
Feed a cold; starve a fever.
False: While getting proper nutrition speeds up recovery, over- or undereating doesn’t work. It is more important to stay well hydrated to prevent other infections from developing.
Chicken soup can ease sore throat and congestion.
Drink hot herbal teas, ginger tea, or other warm drinks, or gargle with saltwater, to soothe the throat.
Avoid caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, and colas, which are dehydrating.
Zinc lozenges reduce the length of a cold.
True: Zinc may work by preventing the rhinovirus from multiplying and/or by inhibiting viruses from lodging in nose and throat mucous membranes. In one review of nine trials, five demonstrated that zinc lozenges reduced both symptom duration and severity.
The researchers suggest the negative trials were due to lower dosages and formulations that contained elements that bound the bioavailability of the zinc. Look for formulations containing acetate or gluconate with elemental zinc, and begin within 24 hours of symptoms appearing.
Note: intranasal zinc (swabs, gels, and sprays) is less effective and can result in permanent loss of smell.
Taking vitamin C prevents colds.
True: In a large meta-analysis of 30 studies, researchers concluded that taking vitamin C as a preventive has moderate benefits. It works best in children and in adults dealing with the stress of very cold weather or intense physical activity. Among those who got colds while taking vitamin C, symptom duration decreased.
Given Canadian winters, the authors recommend daily vitamin C as a safe and cheap way to combat the common cold.
Echinacea is beneficial because it boosts the immune system.
True: Numerous studies have proven echinacea’s ability to boost the immune system and antibody response. Studies focusing on its ability to prevent or treat colds have shown mixed results. Some have found that formulations containing Echinacea purpurea reduced severity of symptoms and significantly reduced their duration, and a 2013 review of studies indicated that “nearly all prevention trials pointed in the direction of small preventive effects.”
Exercising regularly can prevent colds.
False but … While exercising regularly doesn’t necessarily prevent colds, it does strengthen the immune system, helping us recover faster if we do get a cold. So don’t use cold weather as an excuse to stay in bed. Get up. Get moving. Get healthy.