The Truth Behind Mom's Cold & Flu Advice

An older mother and her adult daughter touching their heads together and smiling(BlackDoctor.org) — Mothers are celebrated for their eagerness to help their children on matters big and small: how to behave, what to wear, whom to marry, when to have kids … and, oh yes, how to stay healthy during cold and flu season. Does science back up what Dr. Mom told you about the common cold? Or was she full of hot air? Here’s the truth behind 10 familiar cold-busting tips:

1. “Don’t forget to wash your hands.”

Mom was right on this one. Colds commonly spread when we touch someone or something that harbors cold-causing viruses and then infect ourselves by touching our nose or eyes. Hand washing is great at eliminating these viruses before they sicken us (and before we spread them to others).

Hand sanitizers work well, as does plain old soap and water (no need for antibacterial soap). The key is to wash thoroughly — and regularly. Hand washing is part of the routine in my home. The first thing we do after coming home is hang up our jackets, and then we wash our hands. Be aware that cold viruses can survive on objects for several hours — perhaps overnight.

2. “Have a little chicken soup, dear.”

Seems mother may have been on to something with this one, too. Limited research suggests that it can be helpful. A recent study shows that traditional chicken soup “may contain a number of substances with beneficial medicinal activity.”

What’s more, the hot vapors rising from a bowl of broth help open a stuffy nose, and consuming liquid of any kind helps keep you hydrated. Chicken soup may melt your sickness simply by reminding you of the love of a devoted parent.

3. “Feed a cold, starve a fever.”

Research has been done on this familiar advice. A small study published in 2002 suggests that eating may influence short-term immune function, but whether this has any effect on the course of a cold is unknown. But the study provides no support for the ‘feed a cold’ idea. It is recommended that you listen to your body: If you feel hungry, he says eat something simple, like soup, applesauce, or toast.

4. “Bundle up, or you’ll catch your death of cold.”

Mom was way off base here. There’s no evidence that low temperatures or damp conditions make you more vulnerable to colds. Colds are more common in colder seasons, but scientists now believe this is due in part because low temperatures and low humidity facilitate the transmission of virus-laden microscopic moisture droplets from person to person. So while a warm coat and galoshes may make you MUCH more comfy in inclement weather, they won’t protect you from colds.

5. “Don’t go outside with wet hair.”

The jury’s still out on this piece of advice. Wet hair could freeze in winter and make you more vulnerable to illness, as well as damage your hair and your scalp, and possibly cause frostbite (particularly if it’s not tucked underneath a warm hat). But science still isn’t completely convinced that venturing outside with damp hair will automatically make you more vulnerable to colds.

6. “Are you sure you’re getting enough sleep?”

Studies show that adequate bed rest boosts immune function and reduces the risk of catching a cold. One study, conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, shows that people who sleep less than seven hours a night are three times more likely to catch a cold than people who sleep at least eight hours a night. And it’s common knowledge that extra sleep helps cold sufferers feel better.

7. “Drink lots of fluids.”

As long as she didn’t mean alcohol, mom was on target with this advice. It’s very important to stay hydrated. Water and fruit juice are great, he says; despite their diuretic effect of caffeine, so are tea and coffee.

8. “Take vitamin C.”

Some studies suggest that the “sunshine vitamin” can help prevent the common cold and speed recovery from it. Other studies suggest the opposite. Vitamin C’s “modest” anti-inflammatory effect could make cold sufferers feel a bit better. It is advised that you take extra vitamin C only if they think it works for you.

9. “Take a shower.”

Another good one, mom. A hot shower helps loosen clogged nasal passages and moistens your mucous membranes.

10. “Cover your mouth when you cough.”

Good manners, for sure, and a great way to protect others when you have a cold (though blocking a cough or sneeze does nothing to ease your symptoms). The usual approach — covering your mouth with your cupped hand — isn’t the best one. It’s better to cough into your sleeve. That way, your hands stay relatively germ-free, so you won’t infect others when you shake hands. By the way, avoiding shaking hands with others helps limit your exposure to cold viruses — but don’t assume that it’s safe to shake hands with someone who has no obvious symptoms of a cold. People with colds shed virus particles for days before they show symptoms.
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