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Medical Expert Comes Clean

6 Cold & Flu Fables Debunked

Working alongside doctors, medical experts, and other nurses for nearly thirty years, the insight I’ve gleaned into health and wellness could fill a book. A really big one. Instead, I’m passing along some of that useful info right here to help folks safely navigate through another cold and flu season.

1. The Mom’s Myth

“If you don’t wear your coat, you’ll get a cold.” Or “if you go out with wet hair…” We have all heard it, and some of us have said it (sorry kids). The truth is, if you are out in the snow with wet hair, no hat, and no shoes, and there isn’t a virus present, you will not catch a cold. Why is it so hard to convince people of this? I suppose it’s because each of us has gotten a cold in our lives following a less than brilliant wardrobe decision. Trust me, this had more to do with touching our cold face and nose with our germy hands than it did with our outerwear, or lack thereof.

2. The grandmother’s Myth

“Feed a cold, starve a fever.” After having mixed up this adage more times than I care to count, I have decided (and the experts happen to agree) to feed everything. Seriously, a body in crisis needs nourishment to heal. Fluids, fluids, and more fluids are vital to fighting all viruses, and food, when you’re hungry, is the way to go. Save the diet for when you feel better. And since you asked… yes, chicken soup does help, according to researchers.

3. The Boss’s Myth

“You can only get one cold and one flu per season.” (Translation: Don’t call in sick again!) Kids average six to eight colds per season; adults will deal with two to four. Plus, depending on the flu virus strains out there and your exposure to them, you can fall victim to several. That’s why the flu vaccine covers many strains of the virus each season. Many viruses live 24 hours on hard surfaces such as doorknobs, counters, and telephones. Touch them, then touch your eyes or nose, and you are done for. Believe it or not, the rhinovirus, the virus most often connected to the common cold, bonds to the nasal passages in just 15 minutes after entering the body. Then the fun begins. The flu will take one to four days after exposure for the hammer to fall. Both are contagious before symptoms start and while symptoms are present. Proper hygiene, including frequent hand-washing and good housekeeping, of course, and staying away from sick people can have a significant effect on the amount of exposure to the viruses.

4. The Druggist’s Myth

“Over the counter treatments prolong a cold.” Or “Over the counter treatments cure a cold.” Neither is true. Taking OTC medications according to the directions may help alleviate symptoms during the duration of the cold. Those who maintain that fever, runny nose, and coughing are the body fighting the cold itself and taking medication to stop this will prolong the cold are partly right. The body is trying to remove the virus, but with or without treatment, the cold will last seven to ten days. So if you want to suffer and blow and cough, use tissues, cover your mouth, and please wash your hands as often as possible.

If you have the flu, there are very useful prescription medications that can help. They must be started within the first couple of days of symptoms. If you can’t see the doctor in the early stages, over the counter drugs can offer comfort and some relief. But perhaps the most important thing to know here is that antibiotics do not help. In fact, they can complicate the issue by killing off the beneficial bugs. If your cold or flu starts to get better, then worsens, or is still hanging on after ten to 14 days, it’s time to see the doctor.

5. The Untouchable’s Myth

“Hugging, kissing…and, well, you know, spreads the cold virus.” The nose is the culprit here, so unless you’re Eskimo kissing you’re in good shape. If, however, your nose is running, dripping, sneezing, or otherwise misbehaving, keep it away from others. Wash your hands every time you cough into them, sneeze into them, and/or touch or blow your nose. If you can, cough into your arm or turn your head and cough into your shoulder. Not great for the dry-cleaning bill, but still better than into your hand or in your neighbor’s face. And don’t be afraid to cuddle your child, old or young. It’s true: sometimes, love is all you need.

6. The Worrier’s Myth

“When I get the flu shot, I always get the flu.” The chances of the flu shot giving you the flu are zero. The chance that this is just an excuse to stay away from needles, hmmm, I’d say is pretty good. No one likes to get a shot, but it’s still better than getting the flu, getting a complication from the flu, like pneumonia, spreading the flu to your family, or, heaven forbid, dying from the flu. Each year more than 200,000 people are hospitalized with the flu. Several thousand die from complications. While most people just experience a sore arm from the shot, some do have a reaction. This is a result of your body developing its resistance to the virus. Some may have a mild fever, headache, and/or fatigue. But this is not the flu, and it will be gone in a day or so. If you do get the flu in the days/week following your shot, you were exposed before the vaccine was given, or had time to protect you. So get protected early in the season.

In conclusion, I offer what I like to call the co-worker’s truth. “When you are sick, stay home!” If you are the only one who knows the secret codes to the lunchroom door, fine, wash your hands, put gloves on, and go to work. Otherwise, if you have the flu or a cold, stay home. Sharing a cold is not something that friends and colleagues do. Colds and the flu are easily spread, especially in the workplace. Face it, the only person who might be willing to be around you when you are sick is your mom, and even that is doubtful. Plus, hang out with her and you’re opening yourself up to one of those myth-laden lectures (see numbers one and two).

Maura Cash, RN, BSN, is operations manager at MEDARVA at Stony Point Surgery Center. A nurse for 30 years, Maura is the mother of two and lives in Richmond with her family.
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