Clark Howard

5 myths about colds and the flu that we've heard our entire lives

Baby, it's cold outside. As an arctic blast sweeps across much of the nation, plunging temperatures far and wide, avoiding sickness is top of mind for many people. It doesn't help that federal officials recently announced that the flu has reached epidemic proportions.

If you feel yourself coming down with something it may be because of several things, is it the weather to blame? No doubt you’ve heard a parent, family member or friend say at one time or another that they’d better bundle up so as not to catch a cold. But is that really true? What does the science say?

To ease our minds once and for all, we decided to look into some of the deep-held beliefs around weather and health that we’ve come to regard as fact. What we found may surprise you. Here are some common myths associated with the cold and flu.

Myth #1: Flu vaccine causes the flu

This one is commonly cited by people who refuse to take flu shots in clinics or at their job. It's true that the vaccine usually contains the flu virus (many vaccines typically carry the virus or a biologically similar agent in the hopes that people acquire immunity to it). But does the vaccination cause the flu? The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) says on its website, "No, a flu shot cannot cause flu illness." That's because vaccines are made from either "inactivated" viruses or with "no flu vaccine viruses at all," the agency says.

Myth #2: Cold weather can cause the cold or flu

Mama meant well, but science doesn't exactly jibe with the hardwired belief that cold weather causes the flu or the common cold. But we'd be blind if we didn't acknowledge that we see more instances of sickness during the winter. The truth is a bit more nuanced, according to recent studies. In findings released in 2016, researchers in Sweden have found viruses can thrive in cold, dry air — the kind we get in the winter — as they travel in the wind in liquid particles. This makes people more susceptible to the spread of the flu or a cold. But here's the thing…

Myth #3: Not dressing properly can cause a cold

Viruses don't care if you're dressed appropriately or not. We've all heard our parents tell us to put on a coat or jacket or socks so as not to catch cold in the weather. And that's good advice when it's chilly, but according to those people in the white coats (the irony), the cold and flu is caused by viral transmission, not the weather. A 2005 UK study published by Cardiff University researchers showed that exposure to cold weather has no correlation to cold symptoms.

Myth #4: Starve that flu until it’s gone

The adage, “feed a cold, starve a flu” has been said many a time in many a home. Turns out, that concept may be a house of cards. People who took to dieting or consumed fewer calories while sick had a harder time staying well, according to research by Michigan State University nutritional immunology professor Elizabeth Gardner. Her 2008 study published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that mice who were fed a low-calorie diet didn’t respond well to the flu.

"If you are exposed to a new strain of influenza, to which your body has not made adequate antibodies to protect you from infection, your body must rely on cells that will kill the virus," Gardner told MSU Today. "Our studies show that calorically restricted mice have increased susceptibility to influenza, and their bodies are not prepared to produce the amount of natural killer cells needed to combat the stress of fighting an infection."

Myth #5: Chicken soup or a ‘Hot Toddy’ can cure the cold

When we've got the shivers, stuffy nose and bad cough, we will take anything to alleviate the symptoms. But somewhere along the way, people began to tout that warm-water elixirs were cure-alls. To be clear, there is no cure for the common cold. Because you're likely to be in bed all day due to these illnesses, you're likely going to need more fluids, so chicken soup is great. Its hot temperature will also help soothe your throat — and that's backed up by research.

The "Hot Toddy," comprised of some combination of lemon juice, hot water and perhaps, whiskey, may help open up the sinus cavity a bit by loosening mucus and helping with respiratory tract evaporation. A 2013 review in the Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry praised the wonders of vitamin C, which is a key ingredient in citrus fruits, but its benefits in any Hot Toddy won't constitute a cure.

So what’s the big takeaway here? It’s that regardless of what a clinical study says, we owe it to ourselves — and one another — to take the very best care we can of our bodies. That means we should do whatever it takes to feel better.

And that is chicken soup for the soul.

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