Fact or Fiction: Busting Myths about Colds and the Flu

News Archive January 31, 2013

Fact or Fiction: Busting Myths about Colds and the Flu

Loyola University Health System Pediatric Infectious Disease Expert Clears Up Misconceptions

MAYWOOD, Ill. – The cold and flu season has hit early and hard this year. As the number of people infected continues to increase, so does the number of internet searches for ways to prevent or limit the duration of viral illnesses. But what is fact and what is fiction?

“Last year, we had a pretty mild flu season, but this year it’s coming back in full force,” said Andrew Bonwit, MD, pediatric infectious disease expert at Loyola University Health System. “Though this winter has been mild, it’s still colder than last year. The flu virus transmits better in colder weather and low humidity, so that could be a reason we are seeing more cases of flu this year.”

Whatever the reason, the flu and other viruses are wreaking havoc on people’s busy lives. In desperate hope to keep viruses at bay, many people are wondering if some cold myths are true. Dr. Bonwit addresses 10 of the most common notions concerning colds and flu.

1. If I go outside with my hair wet, I’ll catch a cold: Fiction

“Colds come from viruses, not from wet hair. It’s probably not a good idea to get chilled, so it’s best to dress appropriately when heading outside in the cold,” Dr. Bonwit said.

2. Flu vaccines cause the flu: Fiction

“The flu shot is an inactive form of the virus, so it is impossible to get the flu from the flu shot,” Dr. Bonwit said. “There may be some minor reactions, usually muscle soreness at the injection site. The nasal drop does contain the live virus and so is not recommended for vulnerable patients. Still, the chances of getting the flu from the nasal drop are very slight.”

3. If I don’t vomit, I didn’t have the flu: Fiction

"Influenza can cause vomiting and diarrhea, but not always. Influenza is mainly a respiratory illness. It is possible to have a stomach virus, but that is not influenza,” Dr. Bonwit said.

4. Feed a cold and starve the flu: Not really

“The most important thing is to make sure you are well hydrated and, as well as you are able, eat a balanced diet. Don’t force feed yourself or your child when ill, but try to get plenty of fluids and some electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. Good sources are crackers, bananas, soups and fruit juices,” Dr. Bonwit said.

5. Chicken soup helps cure a cold: Some Fact

“Limited evidence shows that chicken soup might be helpful in fighting a cold,” Dr. Bonwit said. “A small study has shown that it may help reduce the inflammatory response in your respiratory tract when you’re sick and probably improves airflow and hydration. In any case it couldn’t hurt.”

6. Viruses can survive on surfaces for hours: Fact

“The length a virus can survive depends on the type of virus. The flu virus can live for 8 to 12 hours on hard surfaces such as countertops and stainless steel sinks. On soft surfaces, such as cloth, it won’t live very long. Still, it is extremely important to practice good hand hygiene. If someone in your home is sick, be sure to clean all hard surfaces frequently, and use appropriate household disinfects, like diluted bleach or disinfectant cleaning wipes.”

7. If I get a cold or the flu, vitamin C will help me get better faster: Fact and fiction

“Some people think taking extra-large doses of vitamin C will help them get better faster,” Dr. Bonwit said. “This probably isn’t true since your body most likely won’t absorb that much of the extra vitamin C. Though some people swear by it, mega dosing isn’t likely to help. Admittedly, it probably won’t cause harm. You can find some benefit from consuming vitamin C naturally through normal supplement doses or eating fruits with lots of vitamin C, especially citrus fruits, and other fruits and vegetables such as onions. No guarantee it will make you better faster, but may help some, and it can’t hurt.”

8. Taking zinc will make my cold go away faster: Some fact

“There is some mixed evidence. Limited studies have shown that throat lozenges with zinc have helped. Other zinc remedies, such as nasal swabs, caused negative side effects such as people losing their sense of smell. Throat lozenges, with zinc or not, help relieve throat pain, so whether or not they help you get better faster, they will help relieve a sore throat. Just don’t give them to a child under the age of 5 as they can be a choking hazard,” Dr. Bonwit said.

9. Sleep is one of the most important things for kids with a virus: Fact

“Sleep is extremely important to help kids fight a virus. If they are sick, let them sleep. Just make sure they don’t have difficulty being awakened as this could be a sign of something more serious. Watch to make sure they are breathing normally. If not, call your doctor,” Dr. Bonwit said.

10. After three days my child is no longer contagious: Depends on the virus

“Every virus is different, and how long a person is contagious can depend on the person as well as the virus. A child with influenza is usually contagious for about a week,” Dr. Bonwit said.

“I know it sounds old fashioned, but one of the best ways to prevent viral illness is thoroughly washing your hands, especially before and after you eat,” Dr. Bonwit said.

“Also, if you need to cough or sneeze, do it into a tissue and throw it away,” he said. “Then, immediately wash your hands. If a tissue isn’t available, cough or sneeze into your elbow, this will limit the spread of germs.”

Loyola University Health System (LUHS) is a member of Trinity Health. Based in the western suburbs of Chicago, LUHS is a quaternary care system with a 61-acre main medical center campus, the 36-acre Gottlieb Memorial Hospital campus and more than 30 primary and specialty care facilities in Cook, Will and DuPage counties. The medical center campus is conveniently located in Maywood, 13 miles west of the Chicago Loop and 8 miles east of Oak Brook, Ill. The heart of the medical center campus is a 559-licensed-bed hospital that houses a Level 1 Trauma Center, a Burn Center and the Ronald McDonald® Children's Hospital of Loyola University Medical Center. Also on campus are the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, Loyola Outpatient Center, Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine and Loyola Oral Health Center as well as the LUC Stritch School of Medicine, the LUC Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing and the Loyola Center for Fitness. Loyola's Gottlieb campus in Melrose Park includes the 255-licensed-bed community hospital, the Professional Office Building housing 150 private practice clinics, the Adult Day Care, the Gottlieb Center for Fitness, Loyola Center for Metabolic Surgery and Bariatric Care and the Loyola Cancer Care & Research at the Marjorie G. Weinberg Cancer Center at Melrose Park.
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