Colds & Flu: Myths & Magic Cures

Colds can make our life a misery and flu can make us quite ill, particularly if we’re vulnerable due to our age or an existing condition. So it’s no surprise that a host of myths and supposed cures have sprung up around these ailments.

But are any of them backed up by scientific evidence?

If you have a high temperature, then it’s the flu – not a cold.

MYTH. Colds can sometimes cause a high temperature, although it tends to be short-lived and mild (not above 38oC). However, if you’re suffering from sweats and chills, it’s probably flu.

It’s pointless to avoid someone with a cold or flu. You’re bound to get it anyway.

MYTH. Flu and colds are highly contagious, spread by both airborne and direct contact methods, but they’re avoidable. Avoid sufferers if you can, but if you can’t, you can still stay germ-free if you both practise good hygiene. This means:

  • Clean high-contact surfaces regularly (e.g. phones, door handles, touch screens).
  • Clean hands regularly and thoroughly, especially after touching the nose or mouth
  • Don’t share cutlery, cups or towels.
  • Ensure the contagious person has tissues close by to catch coughs and sneezes, and bin them immediately. They should use the ’vampire’ cough (into the inside of their elbow) if they’re caught tissue-less.

The flu vaccine doesn’t always prevent flu, so it’s not worth having.

TRUTH – and MYTH. It’s true that you may still get the flu. Flu vaccines are produced in advance, so experts must try to predict the three or four flu strains that will be prevalent next winter. This means you may catch an unexpected or rarer flu strain you’re not protected from. However, the vaccine is still worth having, as it will protect you from most strains you’ll encounter. It’s particularly recommended if you’re vulnerable or have low immunity, e.g. if you’re a carer, over 65, pregnant or have an existing medical condition.

Getting very wet and/or cold can give you a cold or the flu.

MYTH. Since both colds and the flu are caused by viruses, it’s pretty obvious that cold or wet conditions can’t give you either. But what cold and wet can do is put your body under stress, making it more vulnerable to germs it encounters.

The flu vaccine gives you flu

MYTH. Inactive viruses are used in the vaccine. But you may have a temperature and ache for a short time afterwards.

If you’ve had a cold or flu for a while, you should ask the doctor for antibiotics

MYTH. Your doctor may give in and prescribe them, although they know antibiotics won’t work; antibiotics don’t kill viruses. Patients sometimes take antibiotics for a week and declare smugly that they’re cured, when in reality, that extra week was all their body needed to finally fight off their virus. Antibiotics are only of use if you get a secondary bacterial infection.

Magic Cures

Prevention is the best cure. Cold and flu viruses are highly contagious and most of us touch hundreds of communal surfaces every day, so practice good hygiene and keep your hands squeaky clean – research shows this can work. Research also shows that stress and poor sleep can make us more prone to colds, so take positive action to reduce your stress and ensure you’re getting enough good-quality sleep.

Boosting your immune system may help you resist colds and flu or fight them off more quickly. There is evidence that taking zinc regularly can reduce the number of colds children get each year, and although there is less reliable research on adults, it’s reasonable to assume it can work for them too. Regular intake of probiotics and garlic may also have some preventative effect, but the research so far isn’t reliable enough to confirm it.

Vitamin C and echinacea have now been researched extensively and the consensus is that they don’t provide cold or flu prevention – and any lessening or shortening of symptoms is mild to non-existent. However, Vitamin C may be of negligible benefit to people already under physical stress (e.g. marathon runners).

Decongestants and antihistamines: apologies to your wallet, but when used separately, research indicates these medications have very little or no effect. However, when used together, particularly with painkillers too, there seems to be a slight improvement in symptoms.

Ipratropium bromide (Rinatec) nasal spray does seem to help alleviate symptoms, particularly a runny nose.

Over-the counter cough suppressants: the jury is out, as much of the research is poor quality. But it seems that any benefits are negligible.

Vapour rubs do seem to help a little in alleviating night time cough and improving sleep, but a review of clinic studies showed that over a quarter of users reported burning or itching at the application area.

NSAIDs (Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, e.g. ibuprofen) can reduce fever and help with aches and pains.

If you have a cold or flu, stay hydrated, alleviate the symptoms and take heart; researchers are working to modify naturally-occurring peptides with properties that can combat cold viruses. A cold cure may be on the (distant) horizon.

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