10 myths about colds and flu

It’s wintertime, which means the sniffles – and a host of myths around colds and flu. We spoke to Dr Michael Boswell, a Pretoria-based GP who has a qualification in immunology, to get to the truth. By Mandy Collins


Myth 1: If I sit in a draught I’ll catch a cold

Many studies, and experience, show an increased incidence of viral upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) or colds during colder months. In theory, cooler air inhibits your body’s immune response in your nose and throat. But as the virus requires infection from another person, just sitting in a draught cannot give you a cold.

Myth 2: Flu vaccines cause the flu

Flu vaccines work by exposing your immune system to a protein, called an antigen, which is shared with the virus. This stimulates the production of antibodies, which should protect you from infection. After vaccination you might develop some flu-like symptoms, but this is because your body’s immune response has been activated. It’s very rarely serious.

ALSO SEE: Everything you need to know about the flu vaccine

Myth 3: If I’m sick for more than three days I have the flu

The normal duration of symptoms for any viral URTI is 10 to 14 days. And it’s almost impossible to say which virus is causing your illness without formal testing, which is mostly unnecessary. You might be infected with one of hundreds of potential viruses/bacteria because these symptoms are non-specific and are mostly caused by your body fighting the infection.

Myth 4:  Feed a cold and starve a fever

Always eat a balanced diet unless instructed otherwise by a medical professional. Warm liquids can soothe a sore throat, though.

ALSO SEE: Signs and symptoms of tonsillitis

Myth 5: Eating raw garlic will keep colds and flu at bay

The short answer is ‘no’. A Cochrane review of the available academic literature showed no benefit to eating raw garlic, and any studies showing benefit were so poorly designed, that the outcomes aren’t credible.

Myth 6: Antibiotics will cure my flu

URTIs are most often caused by viruses – strands of DNA or RNA contained in protein capsules or lipid envelopes that infect the cells that make up our organs. They then use the structures within the cells to create copies of themselves. Bacteria, however, are single-celled organisms that can survive on their own and don’t need our cells’ machinery to replicate. They are much larger than viruses and have several target areas where antibiotics can act to stop them from functioning or kill them outright. Viruses don’t have these targets for antibiotics to bind to and therefore can’t be cured by them.

ALSO SEE: Should your child be taking antibiotics?

Myth 7: Vitamin C keeps colds and flu away

Vitamin C deficiency causes scurvy, which can weaken your immune system. If you don’t have scurvy then Vitamin C will not help your viral infection. Excess vitamin C supplementation may, however, give you kidney stones.

Myth 8: If you have a fever you need to sweat it out

A fever might cause you to sweat more than usual, but you shouldn’t overheat yourself. Take over-the-counter medication for fever such as paracetamol and ibuprofen – they’ll make you feel better, reduce your fever and not hinder your body’s immune response. You can only sweat out electrolytes and water, not viruses.

Myth 9: After three days you’re no longer contagious, so you can go back to work or school

Generally speaking, this is true. However, the information on this topic is highly variable depending on many host immune and viral factors. Patients are generally infectious two days before developing overt symptoms and three days after if they have influenza virus.

Myth 10: You should avoid dairy because it makes more phlegm

Dairy products can make your respiratory secretions feel thicker, but they don’t actually increase the amount of mucus in your airways.

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