6 Winter Wellness Myths, Revealed!

ornament in hands
This season, there's no need to worry over these old chestnuts. The truth will set you free -- and might just make you healthier.

Myth: Poinsettias are poisonous.

Truth: These festive potted plants have a reputation for being toxic, but science doesn't bear it out.

"In over 20,000 poinsettia cases reported to poison control centers, there were no deaths, and nobody required intensive medical care," says Rachel C. Vreeman, M.D., coauthor of Don't Swallow Your Gum (St. Martin's Griffin).

The sap can cause an itchy rash, and ingesting the leaves can cause mild stomach discomfort. But that's true of many houseplants. Just to be safe, keep all plants away from young children and pets.

Myth: We pack on major weight in winter.

Truth: The average Am erican gains only a pound or two between Thanksgiving and New Year's, according to the National Institutes of Health. The downside is that the weight creep often goes unnoticed—and unaddressed.

As years go by, the cumulative gain can be serious, says weight-loss specialist Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., author of The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth (Fair Winds Press).

His advice: Maintain a predictive food journal. Instead of documenting what you already consumed, jot down what you intend to eat in the coming day. Having a game plan will help you resist temptations, such as that second slice of pie.

Myth: The air on a plane will make you sick.

Truth: Planes are better ventilated than many people realize. During a flight, fresh outdoor air is continually added to cabin air, then the mixture is cycled through high-efficiency filters to remove most bacteria and viruses, says Michael Zimring, M.D., coauthor of Healthy Travel (Basic Health Publications).

The more infectious hazard? Hard surfaces such as seat trays, which aren’t always cleaned between flights, he says. To protect yourself, bring aboard a mini bottle of hand sanitizer and a few disinfecting surface wipes.

Myth: Icy temperatures sap your immune system.

Truth: Frigid weather might make you shiver, but it won’t make you sick, assures Rachel C. Vreeman,
M.D., coauthor of Don’t Swallow Your Gum (St. Martin’s Griffin).

In various studies, researchers have exposed volunteers to cold temperatures and cold viruses while the subjects stood around in wet hair, minimal clothing, and damp socks. On the whole, they were no more likely to get sick than people who were exposed to cold viruses while wearing dry, warm layers. Still, you should bundle up to prevent frostbite, Vreeman says.

Myth: Sniffles always signal a cold.

Truth: Viruses aren’t the only cause of sneezing and wheezing.

“Millions of people suffer with similar symptoms due to indoor allergens, particularly dust and mold,” Vreeman says. If your nasal discomfort hits suddenly and isn’t accompanied by aches or a fever, you might have an allergy.

Keep dust under control by using HEPA filters in your home’s ventilation system and in your vacuum cleaner. Mold, common in damp areas such as basements, is more difficult to control; a certified mold inspector can advise you.

To ease allergic symptoms in the meantime, try taking an over-the-counter antihistamine.

Myth: Dry skin is just a beauty concern.

Truth: After weeks of frequent hand washing and exposure to arid winter air, a flaky epidermis can develop tiny cracks—which are unsightly and unhealthy.

"These breaks in the surface of skin can provide an entryway for bacteria, viruses, and fungi," Vreeman cautions. Stay smooth by moisturizing skin immediately after bathing, ideally with a lotion that contains a soothing humectant (such as glycerin or aloe) and a barrier ingredient (such as shea butter) to seal in moisture.

If cracked skin becomes inflamed or painful—two signs of infection—see your doctor.

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