Tips to avoid getting sick this winter—and what to do if you do catch the bug
What are the best ways to avoid winter illnesses? Test your knowledge by deciding whether the following statements are true or false.
1. You can avoid colds and flu by staying away from people who are coughing and sneezing.
False. This strategy can certainly help, but it’s not foolproof for two reasons, says William Schaffner, M.D., former president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. First, although viruses are spread mainly through the air, you can also pick them up from contaminated surfaces.
Second, people infected with a virus become contagious a day before symptoms hit. “Most of us acquire colds or influenza from people who aren’t yet sick. They’ll be sick tomorrow, and it’s hard to avoid people who’ll be sick tomorrow. So the best practice is assiduous hand-washing and getting vaccinated,” Schaffner says. If you start feeling crummy, stay home until you’re well. Not only are you contagious before you realize you’re sick, you’re also capable of spreading cold or flu for about five days after you fall ill.
2. Feed a cold, starve a fever.
False. In both cases, experts recommend eating moderately and healthfully. “Listen to your body,” says Schaffner, who is also chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University. “If you’re hungry, eat a little but not too much. If you have a fever, the most important thing is to keep up your fluids so you don’t become dehydrated.” Both hot and cold beverages can be soothing. Dairy products such as ice cream can make phlegm seem thicker, but they don’t actually increase its production—and they may be one of the few things sick children will eat.
3. Going out in icy weather leads to colds.
False. In one study, researchers at Cardiff University’s Common Cold Centre in Wales found that volunteers who soaked their feet in ice water did catch more colds than those who did not, but they failed to track which volunteers were actually exposed to cold viruses—a serious flaw in the study. “There are many reasons viruses spread in winter, but being cold probably has nothing to do with it,” says Robert Belshe, M.D., director of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Immunology at St. Louis University. The main reasons, he says, are that more kinds of viruses circulate in winter, and people stay indoors more, making person-to-person transmission easier.
4. Getting a flu vaccine can give you the flu.
False. The shot contains inactivated virus, which makes it “essentially impossible for the vaccine to cause flu,” says Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. The spray vaccine FluMist contains live attenuated virus. “But here again, the process is such that you do not get the flu from the vaccine. You may get a runny nose or irritated throat, but you won’t get the flu.”
5. You’re more susceptible to colds and flu if you’re under stress.
True. Of course, you’ll catch these ills only if you’re exposed to viruses, “but if you are stressed and you get infected, you have a greater chance of getting sick and having more severe symptoms,” says Ronald Glaser, director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University. This is especially true if you’re an older person and if the stress is chronic, factors that also weaken immune response to vaccines. Four ways to improve immune functioning: Stop smoking, start exercising, connect with loved ones, and watch your weight. Obesity also impairs immune function.
6. If you do get the flu, the only treatment is fluids and bed rest.
False. Antiviral medications can relieve symptoms and shorten illness. But they work only if taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, which limits how often doctors prescribe them. Most adults don’t seek treatment until day four or five, Schaffner says. Fauci suggests you should first control a flu-related fever with acetaminophen. Antibiotics don’t work against viruses—only against bacteria, which become resistant when antibiotics are overused. As for a cold, some studies show that taking zinc at the onset can shorten its duration.
7. If you were vaccinated or had the flu last year, you’re still immune.
False. “The flu virus usually changes enough each year that prior vaccine or exposure does not protect you completely,” says Fauci. It may provide some residual protection if you’re young and healthy and the bug hasn’t changed too much, he says, “but for optimal protection, you need to get the vaccine that has been updated to match the circulating strain.” Flu season can start as soon as October and run as late as May. It’s smart to get vaccinated early to give your immune response time to kick in, but getting vaccinated late in the season beats not doing it at all.
8. When you sneeze or cough, you should cover your mouth and nose with your hands.
False. Using your hands to stifle a cough or sneeze only coats them with germs, which can then get deposited on every person and surface you touch. “Current etiquette says that if you don’t have a tissue, you should turn away from people, or cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm,” says Schaffner. “It shows respect, and the virus gets trapped in your gabardine, so you don’t have to worry about spreading it.” Frequent hand-washing also curtails viral transmission: “In our family, it’s the first thing we do when we come home.”
9. Chicken soup can help relieve cold symptoms.
True—although most experts insist that’s not because it’s anything special. Sipping any hot, steamy liquid can help relieve congestion, and the TLC factor of having someone make soup for you is healing. But there may be more to it than that, says Stephen Rennard, M.D., Larson Professor of Medicine in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. In one study, he found that homemade chicken soup and some canned soups inhibited movement of inflammatory cells called neutrophils. “Most cold symptoms are caused by inflammation rather than by the virus,” he says. If the soup reduces inflammation, “it could make symptoms better. Just because it’s an old wives’ tale doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”