There are a whopping one billion colds in the United States each year.
But what causes colds and helps you get over a bad case of the sniffles is surrounded by myths and misinformation.
Get the truth about what makes you sick—and how to fight off the common cold.
– You can catch a cold by walking outside with wet hair. Myth. You get sick by acquiring one of over 200 viruses, usually into your upper respiratory tract, when your immune system is not capable of managing the virus. A cold virus spreads through tiny air droplets that are released when a sick person sneezes, coughs or blows their nose or when you’ve touched your eyes, nose or mouth after touching an object, like a doorknob, contaminated with a cold virus.
– Drastically changing weather brings on a cold. Myth. Catching the cold virus is what triggers the sniffling and sneezing. But there is truth to the belief that you catch colds more often in the winter. That’s because when the temperature drops, people tend to stay indoors (with the windows shut and the heat blasting). Being in such close quarters with the same air circulating makes it easier to pass the cold virus back and forth.
– Antibiotics help you beat the common cold. Myth—antibiotics fight bacteria, not viruses—but taking antibiotics when you don’t need them can actually be harmful to your health. “Antibiotics do not work against viruses,” explains James Nicolai, M.D.. “They may cause untoward side effects like stomach problems or yeast infections and contribute to drug-resistant bacterial infections.”
– Chicken soup helps heal a cold. True. “There are some tests in recent literature that suggest chicken soup may calm the inflammatory response caused by a viral infection,” notes Dr. Nicolai. “Warm things of any kind are comforting, but they can also help clear nasal passages and positively affect the immune system function.”
– Eucalyptus helps clear up a clogged nose. True. “Eucalyptus is a great herbal remedy to be used as an essential oil in vaporizers or as a rub on the chest,” suggests Dr. Nicolai. If you’re feeling stuffed up, rub on some eucalyptus oil or balm to relieve congestion.
– Stress increases your chances of catching a cold. True. Elevated cortisol levels brought on by stress decrease your immune system function, according to Dr. Nicolai. “A study found that thinking anger-provoking thoughts for only five minutes lowered the antibody response of mucous membranes and stomach lining for over six hours,” he says.
– Washing your hands is your best defense against getting sick. 100 percent! “Washing your hands with soap and water is very effective,” says Beth Ricanati, M.D.. “You’re getting the germs off your hands, which is the easiest way you’re going to spread it.” The most important time to wash your hands is when you’ve been out and about touching doorknobs and shaking hands—especially when you’ve been around someone who already has a cold. “They are the most contagious during the first four days of symptoms,” explains Dr. Nicolai.
– It’s safe to use nasal sprays on a daily basis. Myth. Most over-the-counter medicated nasal sprays, such as Afrin, should only be used for three days in a row. “If you use a medicated nasal spray for more than three days you can get a rebound effect and make symptoms worse,” says Ricanati.
– Zinc helps shorten the duration of a cold. True. Want to cut your cold short? Take some zinc at the first sign of the sniffles. Research shows that zinc lozenges may shorten the duration of common colds by up to 40 percent, according to a study published in the Open Respiratory Medicine Journal. Other research shows that zinc supplements can also reduce the severity and length of the common cold.
– You shouldn’t work out when you’re sick. Depends. The best move: Listen to your body. If you’re having trouble breathing, feel exhausted or all around crummy, stay home and rest. But if you’ve got a case of the sniffles and are up for it, lace up your gym shoes and go. “You shouldn’t do anything that is overly stressful to your body, but mild to moderate exercise is actually something I recommend,” says Dr. Nicolai. “You don’t want to be too tired or sore afterwards.”
– Feed a cold and starve a fever (or vice versa). Myth. “Scientists have found little evidence for either of these myths,” notes Dr. Nicolai. Adds Dr. Ricanati: “You don’t need a three course meal, but starving is not a good idea. You want to keep hydrated and have orange juice, chicken soup and tea with honey.”
– Honey helps heal a sore throat or cough. True. Research shows the sweet stuff helps soothe sore throats and coughs—and, in a study on kids battling upper respiratory infections, honey even beat out an over-the-counter, honey-flavored cough suppressant (dextromethorphan) in symptom relief, according to research published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. That may be because honey, which is loaded with antioxidants, helps soothe irritated mucous membranes, which can trigger coughing.