Preventing a Cold: Myths vs. Facts

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We often talk about infections that would cause avoidable deaths in disasters, but minor illnesses that negatively affect work efficiency in times of trouble are also major problems for the family medic. When everyone has to be at 110% just to survive, anything that limits the ability to perform activities of daily survival puts the whole group at risk.

One of these issues is the common cold. Known variously as a head cold, naso-pharyngitis, coryza, or just a cold, it is the most common illness on the planet, and 75-100 million Americans present to a medical professional for treatment every year. A small percentage of these people go on to have secondary respiratory infections such as pneumonia, which can lead to a life-threatening condition.

The common cold is an infection caused, usually, by a virus in the Rhinovirus or Coronavirus family, although a number of others have been implicated. Affecting the upper respiratory system (nose, throat, sinuses), it’s a (very) rare individual that hasn’t dealt with a cold at one point or another.

Like many viral illnesses, there is no cure for the common cold, and attention should be paid to methods that might prevent it. Many people have their own strategies for prevention, but some of these methods are ineffective and have little basis in fact. Here are time-honored (but false) ways that you can (can’t) prevent a cold:

Dress warmly and you won’t get sick: Dressing warmly for cold weather is a smart move to prevent hypothermia, but it won’t prevent colds. A cold is an infectious disease caused by a virus. Regardless of what you wear, you can be infected in any type of weather.

Stay inside during the winter to avoid catching a cold: Staying inside actually increases your chances of getting infected. Enclosed spaces can expose you to a higher concentration of the virus.

Take antibiotics to prevent colds: Antibiotics kill bacteria. Colds are caused by viruses, an entirely different organism. Therefore, antibiotics are ineffective against them as a preventative or a cure. Although many people ask their doctors for antibiotics to prevent or treat colds, this is a practice that has contributed to an epidemic of resistance in the U.S. Indeed, one out of three Americans leave their doctors’ offices with a prescription for antibiotics to treat an illness that is completely unaffected by them.



Keep your head dry. A wet head will cause a cold: Having a head full of wet hair is thought by some to predispose you to a cold, but it just isn’t so. You may feel a chill, but it won’t make you more likely to catch a virus.

A weakened immune system will cause a cold: Certainly, having a strong immune system is a good thing, but even the healthiest person can catch a cold if exposed to the virus.



Vitamin C will prevent colds: Although supplements like Vitamin C and Zinc may decrease the duration of a cold, they don’t do anything to prevent your catching one.

Turning down the heat in the house will prevent a cold: Many feel that central heating causes the nose to dry up and make them more susceptible to a cold. A virus can colonize the mucus membranes, regardless of the level of humidity.

Prevention is only an issue in the winter. You can only catch colds then: In reality, colds occur most often in the Spring and Fall. Many viruses actually become dormant in cold weather.

Wearing Garlic or other herbs will prevent your getting sick: What? Wearing garlic may repel vampires (and everyone else), but its health benefits mostly derive from being ingested.

Avoid kissing to prevent colds: Interestingly, relatively small quantities of virus reside on the lips or in the mouth. Most of it is found in the nasal cavity. Then again, it’s hard to be kissed without being breathed on as well.

Those are some myths, but here’s a fact: Hand washing is an effective way to decrease your chances of catching a cold. Viruses are transmitted less often if hands are washed regularly and frequently throughout the day. This is especially true if you want to prevent colds in children. Instill hand-washing as a part of daily routine in kids, just as you would teach toilet training.

Natural remedies would include one of my favorites: Green tea with Lemon and Honey.  Drinking the tea and breathing in steam helps the hair follicles in the nose to drain germs out. Lemon is known to thin out mucus and honey is a great natural antibacterial agent.

Don’t forget that viruses can live on surfaces for a period of time, so have some disinfectant around to clean countertops, work surfaces, and doorknobs.

There are as many myths about treating a cold as there are about preventing one. “Feed a cold, starve a fever” is one. We’ll discuss these in detail in a future article.

Joe Alton, MD

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