Cold and Flu: Need to Know Facts and Myths
Cold and flu season is upon us, a time of year that sends many Americans scrambling to refresh their stockpiles of tissues, hand sanitizer and chicken soup. In all, it’s estimated that Americans suffer from 1 billion colds a year, about 2-4 each year for adults and 6-12 annually for children ages 6-12.
Influenza, meanwhile, impacts about 5 percent to 20 percent of the population every year.1 Both colds and flu are caused by viruses and they can cause many of the same symptoms …
So how do you know if you have a cold or the flu?
Your doctor can perform a test to let you know, if necessary, but generally speaking a cold will be milder than the flu and is more likely to cause a runny or stuffy nose. Flu, on the other hand, is more likely to lead to fever, body aches, extreme fatigue and cough. Typically only the flu can lead to serious health complications like pneumonia or bacterial infections -- colds will generally be less severe.
As common as these illnesses are -- virtually everyone has had a cold or the flu at some point in their life -- there’s still a lot of misinformation out there. Here we’ve compiled a list of some common myths and facts about colds and flus to help clear up the confusion and offer you some tips for getting, and staying, well this season.
7 Common Cold and Flu Myths
Myth #1: Feed a Fever, Starve a Cold, or Vice Versa
Some say you should feed a fever, starve a cold. Others believe it’s the cold you feed and the fever you starve. Either way, you don’t ever want to “starve” yourself when you’re sick, as your body needs nutrients to keep functioning.
That said, when you have a fever or cold you probably won’t feel like eating much anyway, and this may help your body direct its energy toward your immune system and fighting off the illness. During a cold, you need to eat healthy foods, like vegetable juice and broths, to help fight off the illness, but you shouldn’t force yourself to do so, and you should definitely avoid overeating.
For the most part, it’s ok to listen to your body when it comes to eating when you have a cold or the flu. If you’re hungry, choose a nutritious snack to give your body energy and always make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids. If you’re not hungry, it’s ok to skip a meal or two, but make sure you don’t go too long without at least a light snack. And no matter what, drink plenty of fluids regularly.
Myth #2: Antibiotics Help
Colds and the flu are caused by viruses … and viruses are not impacted by antibiotics. So taking one will not help you get over a cold or the flu faster. Instead, every time you take antibiotics more bacteria in your body may become resistant to the drugs.
A new study found that patients of doctors who over-prescribe antibiotics may actually develop drug resistance that lasts up to a year, putting them at risk of antibiotic-resistant infections and also increase the chances they could spread drug-resistant bacteria in their community.2
The only time antibiotics should be used is in the case of a secondary bacterial infection. Otherwise, typical colds and flu usually go away on their own and should not be treated with antibiotics.
Myth #3: The Flu Shot Guarantees You Won’t Get the Flu
The flu vaccine only protects against a select group of flu viruses, not all of them, so the effectiveness of the flu shot depends on how well the viruses chosen for the vaccine match up with the flu viruses circulating in your area. Your age and immune system function can also impact the flu shot’s effectiveness.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
"Overall, in years when the vaccine and circulating viruses are well-matched, influenza vaccines can be expected to reduce laboratory-confirmed influenza by approximately 70% to 90% in healthy adults under 65 years of age...
In years when the vaccine strains are not well matched to circulating strains, vaccine effectiveness can be variably reduced."3
"The vaccine may also be lower among persons with chronic medical conditions and among the elderly, as compared to healthy young adults and children. In addition, estimates of vaccine effectiveness vary, based on the specificity of the outcome that is being measured in the study."4
Unfortunately, the only way to know for sure how effective any year’s flu vaccine will be is to wait for the statistics to be revealed after the season is over.
Myth #4: You Can Get the Flu from the Flu Shot
Flu shots contain an inactivated (killed) virus, so you cannot get the flu from a flu shot. You may, however, experience symptoms such as fever, nausea and body aches.
The nasal spray form of the flu vaccine, on the other hand, contains a weakened live virus. Although it’s said this weakened virus will not cause the same severe symptoms that ordinary flu virus can, rare cases of transmitting flu viruses to others after receiving a nasal spray flu vaccine have been reported. Flu-like symptoms, including sore throat, cough, headache, muscle aches and fever may also occur.5
Myth #5: If You Get the Flu Shot Too Early, It Won’t Last All Season
The flu shot is designed to be effective all season, so if you do choose to get one there’s no reason to wait. As the CDC notes:
"Flu vaccination provides protection against the influenza strains contained in the vaccine that will last for the whole season. Vaccination can begin as soon as vaccine is available. Studies do not show a benefit of receiving more than one dose of vaccine during a flu season, even among elderly persons with weakened immune systems."6
Myth #6: You’re More Likely to Catch a Cold or Flu on an Airplane
There’s a general feeling that breathing the air on airplanes is akin to sucking up a Petri dish full of various germs. In reality, it’s not nearly that bad.
University of California, San Francisco researchers found that flying in a plane that uses recirculated air throughout the cabin led to no more colds than did flying in a plane with 100 percent fresh air ventilation.7 Further, Boeing reports that the High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters used to filter cabin air have a greater than 99 percent efficiency in removing bacteria and viruses from the air.8
So while you may be more likely to catch a cold or flu if you’re in close quarters with others who are sick (as you definitely are on a plane), the risk of getting sick on a plane ride is likely similar to any other situation where you’re around a lot of other people in a public place.
Myth #7: Stomach Flu is the Same as the "Seasonal Flu"
The stomach flu, the kind that causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, is not the same as the flu you commonly catch in the winter. Stomach flu is typically caused by noroviruses and is sometimes referred to as viral gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach and intestines). Seasonal flu, on the other hand, is a respiratory illness caused by the influenza virus.
And Now for the Facts …
1. You Can’t Catch a Cold From Going Outside Without a Coat …
… or with wet hair (not that we recommend doing either of these in the dead of winter). You catch a cold or the flu by being exposed to the virus, either from a person who coughs or sneezes or by touching an object with the virus on it.
Most often, flu viruses are spread person to person from coughing and sneezing and breathing in the virus from the air, while cold viruses are often picked up when an infected person transfers germs onto an object (doorknob, pen, TV remote control, etc.) that you then handle. Once the germ is on your hands it can gain entrance to your body if you touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
Just because you’re exposed to a virus does not mean you’ll get sick, however. Whether or not the virus can take hold in your body depends on your immune system’s ability to fight off the pathogen.
Most often, flu viruses are spread person to person from coughing and sneezing and breathing in the virus from the air, while cold viruses are often picked up when an infected person transfers germs onto an object (doorknob, pen, TV remote control, etc.) that you then handle. Once the germ is on your hands it can gain entrance to your body if you touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Just because you’re exposed to a virus does not mean you’ll get sick, however. Whether or not the virus can take hold in your body depends on your immune system’s ability to fight off the pathogen.
2. Colds and Flu Typically Go Away on Their Own
In most cases colds and flu are mild illnesses that require only rest and plenty of fluids for you to recover. Generally speaking, they do not require medical care or antiviral drugs, which are sometimes given for the flu.
There are a few exceptions, especially for the flu, however. Young children, those over 65, pregnant women and people with asthma or diabetes are at an increased risk of flu complications, and may want to see their health care provider if flu-like symptoms occur. If you’re suffering from a cold or flu and have difficulty breathing, dizziness, severe vomiting, or high fever, or if you are not able to drink enough fluids, you should seek medical help immediately.
Also seek medical care if your symptoms get worse instead of better, or last an unusually long time.
Flu typically goes away in three to five days while colds generally last seven to 10.
3. Chicken Soup IS Good for Colds and Flu
Did your mom or grandma always make you chicken soup to help you recover from a cold? It turns out there is some truth behind this old wives’ tale. In fact, researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center found that chicken soup has anti-inflammatory properties that are soothing for colds and flu.
In their lab study, chicken soup inhibited the movement of neutrophils, white blood cells released by viral infections that stimulate the release of mucous. The researchers concluded:9
"The present study, therefore, suggests that chicken soup may contain a number of substances with beneficial medicinal activity. A mild anti-inflammatory effect could be one mechanism by which the soup could result in the mitigation of symptomatic upper respiratory tract infections."
So in this case it turns out mom and grandma knew best all along.
4. Regular Exercise Can Keep Colds Away
It's long been known that exercise is beneficial for immune system function, but now a new study revealed that people who exercise regularly may cut their risk of getting a cold nearly in half.10 Further, in the event you do get sick, your symptoms will likely be less severe if you’re normally an active person.
So keeping your fitness level up even in the cold of winter is every bit as important as eating right, sleeping well and keeping your stress levels in check for helping to ward off illness.
5. Hand-Washing is One of the BEST Ways to Avoid Colds and Flu
It's deceivingly simple, but washing your hands -- vigorously for about 20 seconds -- is one of the best ways to avoiding getting a cold or the flu.
In fact, the World Health Organization points out that washing your hands often makes you 24 percent less likely to catch a respiratory illness and up to 50 percent less likely to get a stomach bug.11
Along with washing your own hands, make sure your kids learn the importance of hand-washing, both at home and at school, too.
6. Honey Can Soothe Your Cough
If you’re struggling with a bad cough, a spoonful of honey may be even better than a dose of cough medicine.
Researchers found that children given a spoonful of buckwheat honey mixed into a non-caffeinated drink before bed coughed less and slept as well as or better than kids given a commercial cough medicine.12
So if you're coughing, mixing a spoonful of honey into a cup of herbal tea may provide some soothing relief. But remember, infants under 1 year of age should not be given honey due to botulism risks.
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Vitamin D Levels Take an Unhealthy Dip During the Winter
1. CDC.gov Seasonal Influenza, Q&A
2. BMJ. 2010 May 18;340:c2096.
3&4. CDC.gov Seasonal Flu Vaccination
5. CDC.gov 2010-2011 Seasonal Influenza (Flu) Vaccine Safety
6. CDC.gov Seasonal Influenza (Flu) Q&A
7. UCSF New Office July 22, 2002 “Recirculated airplane cabin air does not cause more colds”
8. Boeing.com Commercial Airplanes, Cabin Air Quality
9 Chest. 2000 Oct;118(4):1150-7.
10. British Journal of Sports Medicine November 1, 2010
11. USAToday.com January 21, 2009 "The science of hand washing to ward off cold, flu bugs"
12. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine December 2007;161(12):1140-1146.