The common cold is exactly that: common. There are more than two hundred different viruses that can cause a cold, and statistics show that most of us will catch a cold between two and four times a year. At any given time, five per cent of us are waging war against a cold. Colds are the leading cause of visits to the doctor and the main reason we stay home from work. Myths about the common cold are almost as common as the cold itself, but is there any truth in them?
You’ll catch a cold by getting cold
No, there’s no evidence that the weather has anything to do with whether you’ll catch a cold or not: you’re infected only when you come into contact with the cold virus. We’re more likely to get colds during the winter months, but this is probably because we spend more time indoors and our contact with contagious people is increased. Also, cold weather may make the inside lining of the nose drier and more vulnerable to viral infection.
Going outside with wet hair makes you sick
Forgetting to dry your hair before you go outside may make you feel colder, but a wet head doesn’t increase your chances of catching a cold. Unless you become so cold that you get hypothermia, which could make you more susceptible to infection, wet hair or clothes won’t increase your vulnerability. The only way you’ll catch a cold is when the virus reaches your respiratory tract by being breathed in through your nose or mouth or rubbed near your eyes.
You’ll catch a cold if you kiss someone who has one
The reality is that the quantity of virus on the lips and mouth is miniscule, and a much larger dose is required to infect us. It’s the nasal mucous that really transmits the virus, and you’re far more likely to catch a cold from someone coughing or sneezing near you.
You shouldn’t drink milk when you have a cold
The idea behind this one is that dairy products increase nasal mucous. However, studies show that milk has no direct effect on a cold at all: it’s digested like any other protein and is not specifically converted into nasal mucous.
Feed a cold, starve a fever
There’s no scientific evidence to suggest that excessive eating has any effect on a cold at all! In fact, having a cold may cause a drop in appetite, and experts recommend we listen to our bodies and eat accordingly. Good nutrition can play a role in how quickly we recover from infection, and staying hydrated definitely helps reduce cold symptoms.
Loading up on vitamin C stops you getting a cold
No, there’s no conclusive evidence that taking vitamins will prevent colds or substantially reduce their duration. In fact, taking vitamin C in large amounts over long periods of time may cause stomach cramps or diarrhoea.
You shouldn’t treat cold symptoms
We’ve been led to believe that allowing cold symptoms to ‘run their course’ will help us get over the infection more quickly. In fact, research indicates that the presence or absence of symptoms makes no difference to the duration of the cold. Coughing and a runny nose spread the infection more easily to other people, so controlling them not only makes the illness more tolerable but also helps keep it contained.
You can sweat it out
Well, sort of. Taking a hot bath or shower won’t cure a cold or even shorten its duration, but the steam can loosen clogged nasal cavities and moisten the mucus membranes, helping with congestion and easing some of the symptoms.
Antibiotics can cure a cold
No, they can’t. Antibiotics kill bacteria, but the common cold is caused by a virus which is not affected at all by antibiotics. Treating a cold with antibiotics may actually make it worse by killing ‘friendly’ bacteria and creating an environment more hospitable to the virus. Also, the overuse of antibiotics causes our bodies to develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria which can mean they won’t work when we really do need them.
Chicken soup will help a cold
Yes, this one’s true! Scientific research now backs up the benefits of this traditional cold remedy. Chicken soup can provide relief from the symptoms of a cold through its synergistic properties – the combination of active ingredients with medicinal and antioxidant properties, and the fact that it’s a warm liquid which helps the body clear mucous from the bronchial tubes.
A single cold virus can have sixteen million offspring within twenty-four hours, and there are new viruses arising all the time. Your best offence is good defence: maintain a year-round healthy regime of diet, exercise, sleep, and stress-management. And make a big pot of chicken soup at the first sign of a sniffle!