With all the old wives tales about cold and flu rattling in our heads, it’s tough to know what works —and what doesn’t. Busting myths may not be the total Rx, but it may help you find the right remedy.
1. MYTH: The flu is just a bad cold.
TRUTH: They’re not even cousins.
Colds and flu are both caused by viruses. But they're different strains. It’s hard to tell which you have, but here are two clues:
- Colds come on gradually. First, it’s a sore throat, then a runny nose followed by a cough. The flu, on the other hand, hits at once.
- Colds don’t generally produce fever. With the flu, you may be burning up. (Exception: Children can run high fevers with colds.)
2. MYTH: A cold affects your nose, throat and chest. The flu strikes your stomach.
TRUTH: Not quite.
The flu can make you nauseous, but in only about a third of cases. Usually, when you're sick to your stomach, it's for a different reason – another virus, a bacterial infection or food poisoning.
3. MYTH: Cold weather makes you catch a cold or flu.
TRUTH: It’s just a coincidence.
You get caught in the rain and return home wet and chilled. Next thing you know, you’re feeling under the weather. It's easy to blame it on Mother Nature. Except for the fact that both colds and flu happen mostly in winter, there’s absolutely no climate connection.
No one knows why winter is cold-and-flu season. But there are theories. People spend more time indoors within sneezing distance of infected friends, relatives and co-workers.
Cold and flu viruses also survive better in winter, when humidity is lower. The longer they survive, the more chances they have to infect you.
Cold air may also be hard on the respiratory system, making you more susceptible to infections, says Ira Leviton, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Montefiore Hospital and professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. But the virus, not the temperature, is what makes you sick.
Viruses travel, too, says Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association. Each year, new strains develop in Asia in the continent’s rainy season and arrive in the U.S. about six to nine months later – usually by winter.
4. MYTH: Getting a flu shot can give you the flu.
TRUTH: Not even close.
The vaccine is made from a dead flu virus. It can't infect you. Any reaction you may have is due to the vaccine’s proteins and chemicals, Edelman says. So, even if your reaction feels like the flu, it's not the flu.
5. MYTH: Breathing the same air as a sick person can make you sick.
Coughing and sneezing can send viruses into the air. And you could get sick inhaling them. But that's not likely. More common: A sick person rubs her eyes or nose, picks up a telephone and deposits germs that can live there for several hours. You pick up the phone, rub your eyes or nose, and – tada! – the germs have claimed a new victim.
To avoid catching a bug – or giving it to someone else – wash your hands or use hand sanitizer often during cold and flu season.
6. MYTH: "Feed a cold, and starve a fever?" Or "starve a cold, and feed a fever?”
TRUTH: Feed, feed, feed.
People are never sure what to feed and what to starve. But it doesn’t matter, because you need to feed both a cold and a fever. Not eating or drinking enough, you make you dehydrated. And that's when you’re most likely to catch a cold or flu.
When you’re fighting a virus, the body needs more fluids than usual because it’s losing water (from watering eyes, runny nose, perspiration). Types of fluids matter too. Drink water, broth, juices and warm water with lemon and honey to rehydrate you and reduce congestion. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can dehydrate you more.
7. MYTH: Natural remedies like vitamin C, echinacea or zinc can prevent a cold or cure it.
There’s no scientific proof that vitamins, minerals or supplements can prevent or cure colds. But they may shorten them.
Research has shown that daily doses of at least 1,000-2,000 milligrams of vitamin C can end a cold a day or so earlier, at least 200 mg may lower the chances of catching one at all for people in extreme situations such marathon runners, skiers or soldiers on sub-arctic exercises.
Studies of echinacea and zinc, on the other hand, have had mixed results, but these natural remedies are still used by many believers. (See related article: Natural Remedies for Cold and Flu Prevention)
"If it were really that easy, argues Leviton, we could get rid of colds from the entire world."
8. MYTH: Antibiotics can cure a cold or flu.
TRUTH: Absolutely not!
Antibiotics kill bacteria. Colds and the flu are caused by viruses, which don’t respond to antibiotics. It’s like putting your arm in a cast to get rid of a headache. You won’t feel better (unless you also have an ear infection, sinusitis or other bacterial problem). And you could be making the world a scarier place. The more frequently you take antibiotics, the more resistant they become to drugs in general.
9. MYTH: Once you catch a cold or flu, all you can do is wait for it to pass.
TRUTH: Not so for flu.
Prescription antiviral flu medications, such as Tamiflu and Relenza, can reduce symptoms and heal you faster. But they must be taken within the first two days experiencing symptoms.
"Two and a half days is too late," Leviton says.
No such prescription medicines are available for colds. Over-the-counter medicines, such as decongestants, antihistamines and pain relievers are your best bet for cold and flu symptoms.
10. MYTH: You can treat a cold or flu with chicken soup.
Chicken soup has anti-inflammatory properties that may fight cold and flu symptoms, researchers have found. (A comparison of store-bought versus homemade soups, many canned varieties were as good as mom’s version.) So far, though, scientists have only observed the soup's beneficial effects in rat’s labs – not people.
"It couldn't hurt," Leviton says. "People should be eating and drinking whatever makes them feel better. If they like chicken soup, they should have chicken soup."
Science aside, soup simply feels soothing. It’s also re-hydrating, and steam from the broth can de-stuff your nose.
Want more? Check out the Cold and Flu Health Center.
How Much Do You Know About Home Remedies?
Chicken soup for a cold? Holding your breath to stop hiccups? Friends and family swear by these common cures, but you’re skeptical. Can you decipher fact from fiction? Find out how much you really know in this quiz.