Cold and Flu Wives’ Tales: Setting the Record Straight

When it comes to wintertime illnesses, it seems the old wives’ tales never end. My own grandparents harped on me as a child to wear socks as running around in bare feet could cause me to catch a cold. Now, as a nurse practitioner, I see similar unfounded beliefs among my patients as well.

Long held misconceptions can be difficult to correct, especially if you are unsure how these beliefs took hold in the first place. This last weekend, I debunked a few cold and flu myths on Fox and Friends (If you missed my segment you can watch it here!) and thought I would share the science I uncovered behind these beliefs. Here are a few cold and flu myths I commonly encounter in my practice.

Wives’ Tale #1: You lose 90% of body heat from your head

Fact: In reality, you lose body heat from any exposed body surface, not just the head. This myth has its roots in a flawed study from the 1950’s. In this study, volunteers went outdoors in arctic survival suits and were exposed to bitter cold. Researchers measured body heat changes finding that participants lost a disproportionate amount of body heat from their heads. The problem? Participants were not wearing hats. If you were to repeat this study with participants wearing swim trunks, a more accurate experiment, only about 10% of body heat would be lost through the head.

Our faces, chest and head are, however, five times more sensitive to cold temperatures than the rest of the body. Keeping these areas covered will help you feel warmer.

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Wives’ Tale #2: Eating dairy products can make a flu or cold worse

Fact: Eating dairy when you’re sick feels like it causes mucus in your throat to thicken and gives the sensation of increased secretions. So, researchers put this belief to the test. They weighed tissues used by sick individuals consuming dairy and those who avoided milk products altogether. The result? Tissues used by both groups weighed the same. Eating dairy did not result in excess mucus production.

Eating a scoop of ice cream or cup of pudding when sick may even sooth sore throats and provide calories necessary to help the body fight infection. Patients with a noticeable increase in mucus production after consuming dairy products may have a milk allergy. This is most common in young children. But, for most, the occasional scoop of ice cream is just fine- even if feeling under the weather.

Wives’ Tale #3: Feed a cold, starve a fever

Fact: Parents often come to me worried that their children aren’t eating well when sick. My reassurance? When it comes to illness, force-feeding won’t help. Illness is a time to focus primarily on hydration.

When a child has a fever or other illness, it’s normal to lose their appetite. In the case of gastroenteritis, for example, this gives the stomach a chance to heal. Remind parents to stress liquid over solids. And, now is not the time to push the veggies. Offering kids their favorite foods increases the likelihood they will eat and get the calories necessary to fight infection.

One trick you can encourage parents to use is to give their child popsicles when sick. These contain calories and are a sneaky way of increasing fluid intake. Parents can even make their own popsicles but using electrolyte-replacing solutions like Pedialite or Gatorade and a paper cup or popsicle mold.

Wives’ Tale #4: Bundle up or you’ll catch a cold

Fact: As nurse practitioners we’re all aware that cold and flu viruses are what make people sick, not being chilly in itself. In fact, a single sneeze can propel as many as 100,000 germs into the air. Some studies show that being chilly may affect the functionality of the immune system, however. Cold causes blood vessels to constrict preventing the circulatory system from delivering white blood cells, antibodies and other infection-fighting cells to the nose and throat as easily. As a result viruses may be able to enter the body more readily. But, in the end, it’s the actual pathogen that makes you sick.

Wives’ Tale #5: You don’t need to drink as much water in the winter

Fact: In reality, your body needs just as much water in the winter as the summer to stay hydrated. This has to do with a change in humidity. Winter months are typically less humid than sumer months. This dries out the lining of the nose and mouth decreasing the body’s protective barrier against bacteria and viruses. Drinking too little increases your chances of getting sick. Men need about 3 liters of water a day (13 glasses) and women should drink 2.2 liters each day (9 glasses).


What cold and flu myths do you often debunk for your patients?


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