With cold and flu season upon us, we all remember the saying, “Don’t go out in the cold or you’ll catch your death.” However, this phrase is a widespread misconception.
According to Thomas Tallman, doctor of osteopathic medicine and emergency medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic in an interview with WebMD, there is no correlation between cold weather and catching a cold.Tallman explained that even though some people believe that hot, dry air makes the mucous in your lungs dry up—increasing your susceptibility to catching the cold—humidity is irrelevant to getting sick.
This myth originated from the ‘symptoms’ shared when one is cold and when one has a cold. A person in cold weather tends to feel dryness in the nose, throat, and could develop a cough.
Likewise, the common cold is an upper respiratory tract infection caused by over 200 viruses—the most common of which is the rhinovirus. Symptoms of the cold include coughing, sneezing and a sore throat—similar to what happens when you’re stuck in the cold for a long time.
Rhinovirus stimulates an inflammatory immune response, resulting in symptoms after as little as 20 hours. Usually, this inflammatory response is sufficient to eliminate the infection after a week, on average.
Some wonder whether a compromised immune system is what gives you a cold. One of the biggest misconceptions associated with cold and flu is the belief that a stronger immune system makes you impervious to these germs.
“You can be as healthy as an ox and still get a cold,” Tallman said. In other words, the cold and flu don’t only affect immunocompromised patients.
So how does one cure the common cold? You can’t. There is no cure.
“There’s nothing you can do but wait it out,” Tallman says. Several medications are available to relieve symptoms, and garlic juice, lemon juice, ginger, and tea with honey are also great methods to reduce coughing.
Quite simply, washing your hands is the best method of prevention from catching the common cold.
The flu, however, is another story. While it’s possible to develop cold-like symptoms for a day, these symptoms do not compare to the fever, muscle soreness, or nausea commonly associated with the flu. The influenza vaccination is particularly recommended for immunocompromised patients—those with asthma, chronic lung disease, the elderly, or pregnant women—as they are all at high risk of developing pneumonia during the flu.
Furthermore, Tallman explains that while some people take vitamin C and zinc to prevent coming down with the flu, there isn’t enough evidence to strongly support this claim. Some studies are available, however, that show these measures shorten symptoms.
As far as treatment goes, Tallman warns cold and flu patients to avoid antibiotics.These products are used to treat bacterial infections—not viral infections—meaning they will cause more harm if used improperly. In fact, unnecessary use of antibiotics is one of the leading causes of a growing problem of antibiotic resistance among microbes, and the proliferation of ‘superbugs.’
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of antiviral medications as early as possible upon the sign of flu symptoms—they are most effective when taken within the first 48 hours.
The CDC also recommends the use of oseltamivir and zanamivir—both are neuraminidase inhibitors that minimize the duration and severity of symptoms associated with the flu.
In the end, these widespread cold and flu misconceptions have become almost culturally transmitted from generation to generation. To set the record straight, although you might not enjoy it too much, braving that cold air won’t necessarily land you home on the bed for a week.