Cold Myths, Debunked
Don't let the sniffly, sneezy season get you down. Our reality check on eight common misconceptions gives you the info you need to stay well when the temperatures drop.
You Might Think: This year I'm going to be ready and stock up on vitamin C, echinacea, and zinc.
Reality: These herbs and supplements all have benefits, but they're not interchangeable. Daily doses of C might shorten colds a bit and slightly ease symptoms. Echinacea helps with a runny nose but doesn't do much to prevent colds. Research shows that if you take zinc (in lozenge form) within 24 hours of symptoms starting, it helps stop the virus from replicating and cuts one to three days off your downtime, says Judy Tunk, M.D., chair of the department of medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Lower Manhattan Hospital.
You Might Think: I get the flu shot but still seem to get sick every year. Why bother?
Reality: The vaccine isn't perfect. If you've been vaccinated and get the flu, your case will be much milder. It's also possible that what you had wasn't really the flu but, rather, a very bad cold. How to tell: The flu generally causes fever and a dry cough but no significant congestion or runny nose. Colds, on the other hand, come with serious mucus production but little or no fever. If you think you've been hit by the flu, call your doctor, who can get you on an antiviral.
You Might Think: If a product is labeled antibacterial, it must work better.
Reality: Antibacterial products are not needed. A chlorine-based product kills germs just fine, says Jesse Miller, Ph.D., director of the Applied Research Center at NSF International. For hands, soap and water are the gold standard, but scrub 20 seconds and get between fingers; sudsing and rinsing dislodges and removes germs. No sink? Hand sanitizers that are at least 60 percent alcohol kill most germs. When disinfecting surfaces, let the solution sit for several minutes.
You Might Think: My throat is scratchy, and I'm really stuffed up. I'm going to ask my doctor for antibiotics.
Reality: Hold, please. About a third of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary, and overuse of antibiotics has led to the dangerous problem of resistance as bacteria have learned to adapt to the drugs. You usually don't need to see a doctor for typical cold symptoms unless, after a week, you feel worse or haven't gotten better.
You Might Think: A combo cold medication is best; it will knock out all my symptoms.
Reality: It's safer to take separate meds that treat each symptom. Most combo formulas have a decongestant, a pain reliever, a cough suppressant, and an antihistamine; chances are you don't need all four. The danger: It's hard to keep track of the doses of each drug, which puts you at risk for taking too much (you might forget and take more of a painkiller later on), and more is definitely not better.
You Might Think: Sick days are for wimps. I'm going in to work.
Reality: It's not about you. In a recent study, most people polled said they went to work when they weren't feeling well, even though they were entitled to take sick days with pay. Although you won't make your own illness worse, says Amesh Adalja, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at the University of Pittsburgh, you put colleagues at risk by keeping germs circulating through the office.
You Might Think: My stomach is so upset -- must be the sushi I had at lunch.
Reality: You may not have food poisoning at all, which is more common in the summer. Food-borne illnesses don't always strike immediately. Viruses like the norovirus of cruise-ship fame peak in winter months, are wildly contagious, and spread quickly through schools, day care centers, and homes. Whatever the source, when you're vomiting or have diarrhea, it's important to keep rehydrating with plenty of fluids like sports drinks.
You Might Think: I'm getting a cold sore. I'd better take a lysine supplement.
Reality: Research does show that taking lysine as a preventive measure may help stop the herpes simplex 1 virus from becoming active and causing cold sores. But due to the possible risk of kidney problems when you take lysine long-term, many experts recommend sticking with over-the-counter Abreva, which you apply topically once you feel a cold sore coming on. Or ask your doctor for a prescription antiviral (such as acyclovir).