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Achoo! Cold and flu season is officially here. There are a whopping one billion colds in the United States each year (so basically, plan on getting more than one).
But what causes colds and helps you get over a bad case of the sniffles is surrounded by myths and misinformation.
Get the truth about what makes you sick—and how to fight off the common cold.
Myth or Truth: You can catch a cold by walking outside with wet hair.
Myth. Sorry, Mom, but dashing out of the house with a wet head doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to catch a cold. “It’s a great old wives’ tale,” says Beth Ricanati, M.D., YouBeauty Wellness Advisor and medical director of the Lifestyle 180 program at the Cleveland Clinic.
So how do you pick one up? “You get sick by acquiring one of over 200 viruses, usually into your upper respiratory tract, when your immune system is not capable of managing the virus,” explains James Nicolai, M.D., YouBeauty Integrative Health Expert and the medical director of the Andrew Weil, M.D. Integrative Wellness Program at Miraval Arizona Resort and Spa in Tucson.
A cold virus spreads through tiny air droplets that are released when a sick person sneezes, coughs or blows their nose or when you’ve touched your eyes, nose or mouth after touching an object, like a doorknob, contaminated with a cold virus.
Myth or truth: Drastically changing weather brings on a cold.
Myth. Similar to the false belief that walking outside with wet hair can make you sick, temperature fluctuations (such as the weather going from 70 degrees to 50 and back to 70 in the span of a week) doesn’t bring on a cold. Catching the cold virus is what triggers the sniffling and sneezing.
But there is truth to the belief that you catch colds more often in the winter. That’s because when the temperature drops, people tend to stay indoors (with the windows shut and the heat blasting). Being in such close quarters with the same air circulating makes it easier to pass the cold virus back and forth.
Myth or Truth: Antibiotics help you beat the common cold.
Bad idea! It’s not only a myth—antibiotics fight bacteria, not viruses—but taking antibiotics when you don’t need them can actually be harmful to your health. “Antibiotics do not work against viruses,” explains Dr. Nicolai. “They may cause untoward side effects like stomach problems or yeast infections and contribute to drug-resistant bacterial infections.” So put the Cipro down and step away from your medicine cabinet.
Myth or Truth: Chicken soup helps heal a cold.
True. Your grandma was doing more than just showering you with love when she brought you a “nice bowl of chicken soup” to cure the sniffles. “There are some tests in recent literature that suggest chicken soup may calm the inflammatory response caused by a viral infection,” notes Dr. Nicolai. “Warm things of any kind are comforting, but they can also help clear nasal passages and positively affect the immune system function.”
Researchers at the Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine Section of the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha found that chicken soup—also known as “Grandma’s penicillin”—has anti-inflammatory properties that may help ease cold symptoms. “It’s a great cure-all,” adds Dr. Ricanati.
Myth or Truth: Eucalyptus helps clear up a clogged nose.
True. “Eucalyptus is a great herbal remedy to be used as an essential oil in vaporizers or as a rub on the chest,” suggests Dr. Nicolai. If you’re feeling stuffed up, rub on some eucalyptus oil or balm (such as Primavera’s Cold Therapy Eucalyptus Balm) to relieve congestion.
Myth or Truth: Stress increases your chances of catching a cold.
True. Elevated cortisol levels brought on by stress decrease your immune system function, according to Dr. Nicolai. “A study found that thinking anger-provoking thoughts for only five minutes lowered the antibody response of mucous membranes and stomach lining for over six hours,” he says. “When we get stressed out, we get sick!”
Myth or Truth: Washing your hands is your best defense against getting sick.
100 percent! “Washing your hands with soap and water is very effective,” says Ricanati. “You’re getting the germs off your hands, which is the easiest way you’re going to spread it.”
The most important time to wash your hands is when you’ve been out and about touching doorknobs and shaking hands—especially when you’ve been around someone who already has a cold. “They are the most contagious during the first four days of symptoms,” explains Dr. Nicolai.
But don’t forget to dry those fingers. Research published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology found that not drying your hands thoroughly after washing them—and surprisingly, rubbing your hands under an electric dryer—may increase the spread of bacteria.
According to the researchers, when you rub your hands together while drying them, bacteria that naturally lives within the skin can be brought to the surface and transferred to other surfaces (like doorknobs), along with any remaining surface bacteria left behind after hand washing. So grab a paper towel to thoroughly dry your hands or let the electric dryer do its job—sans hand rubbing. Or use a natural hand sanitizer, such as CleanWell All-Natural Hand Sanitizing Spray, in a pinch.
Myth or Truth: It’s safe to use nasal sprays on a daily basis.
Myth. Most over-the-counter medicated nasal sprays, such as Afrin, should only be used for three days in a row. “If you use a medicated nasal spray for more than three days you can get a rebound effect and make symptoms worse,” says Ricanati. Need more frequent relief? Ricanati recommends opting for an over-the-counter saline nasal spray (such as Ocean Premium Saline Nasal Spray) to flush out congestion.
Myth or Truth: Zinc helps shorten the duration of a cold.
True. Want to cut your cold short? Take some zinc at the first sign of the sniffles. Research shows that zinc lozenges may shorten the duration of common colds by up to 40 percent, according to a study published in the Open Respiratory Medicine Journal. Other research shows that zinc supplements can also reduce the severity and length of the common cold.
Myth or Truth: You shouldn’t work out when you’re sick.
Depends. The best move: Listen to your body. If you’re having trouble breathing, feel exhausted or all around crummy, stay home and rest. But if you’ve got a case of the sniffles and are up for it, lace up your gym shoes and go. “You shouldn’t do anything that is overly stressful to your body, but mild to moderate exercise is actually something I recommend,” says Dr. Nicolai. “You don’t want to be too tired or sore afterwards.”
And when you’re done with your sweat session, don’t forget to wipe down any shared equipment like the treadmill rails or the dumbbells you were lifting so you don’t share your cold with other gym members, suggests Dr. Ricanati.
Myth or Truth: Feed a cold and starve a fever (or vice versa).
Myth. No one knows where this old adage got started, but most experts agree it’s not exactly the best advice. “Scientists have found little evidence for either of these myths,” notes Dr. Nicolai. Adds Dr. Ricanati: “You don’t need a three course meal, but starving is not a good idea. You want to keep hydrated and have orange juice, chicken soup and tea with honey.”
Myth or Truth: Honey helps heal a sore throat or cough.
True. A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but a tablespoon of honey can help keep coughs under control. Research shows the sweet stuff helps soothe sore throats and coughs—and, in a study on kids battling upper respiratory infections, honey even beat out an over-the-counter, honey-flavored cough suppressant (dextromethorphan) in symptom relief, according to research published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. That may be because honey, which is loaded with antioxidants, helps soothe irritated mucous membranes, which can trigger coughing.
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