Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Myths about colds abound; here's good advice: wash your hands to prevent infection, and if you get a cold, chicken soup can help

Cold and flu season is here, and the lack of a cure for the common cold has helped sustain much misinformation about it. Neda Frayha, an assistant dean at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, did a column for The Washington Post outlining five myths about the common cold:

1. Colds can be spread only if someone sneezes or coughs. Actually, direct contact with a cold sufferer "is even more likely to make you sick, whether or not they cough near you," Frayha writes. "Several major studies have shown that hand-to-hand touch is the most common way to spread rhinovirus, the family of viruses that causes most colds. One of these studies . . . also demonstrated the importance of hand hygiene — it recommended applying a liquid iodine solution to the fingers, though soap works well, too — in reducing the spread of the virus."

You can get a cold from someone else's sneeze even if you aren't around. "Viruses can live on furniture, toys, phones and other common household or office surfaces for several hours," Fyarha writes. "A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology in 1982 showed that when young, healthy adults touched either coffee-cup handles or plastic tiles that had been contaminated with rhinovirus, and then touched their faces, half of them came down with a cold. Fewer of them became sick if they touched a plastic tile that had been sprayed with a disinfectant."

2. Hand-sanitizing gels are as effective as hand-washing to prevent the spread of the cold. "If given a choice between washing with soap and water or coating your hands in a dollop of sanitizer," Frayha writes, "the old-fashioned soap-and-water combination is the safer bet. Sanitizing gels don’t work well if your hands are visibly dirty. And they must contain at least 60 percent alcohol to reduce the spread of diseases such as the cold, but some varieties at your local pharmacy contain significantly less."

3. Air travel increases your risk of catching a cold. "There is no evidence that air travel makes us any sicker than our normal working environments on the ground," Frayha writes. "A large study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002 showed that traveling in a commercial aircraft with recirculated air did not increase the risk of catching a cold compared with flying in a plane that pumped in fresh air."

4. Colds cause fevers. Usually not in adults. "Fever is listed as a symptom of the common cold in television commercials for over-the-counter remedies . . . and in young children, fever is common in most upper respiratory infections," Frayha writes, but in adults, "fever — defined as a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher — is actually very rare in rhinovirus infections. It is much more common for a cold to cause a sore throat, a stuffy and/or runny nose, sneezing and cough, but with a normal body temperature. If you have these symptoms plus a fever, then you and your health-care provider should think about other possibilities, including strep throat, sinusitis, pneumonia or the flu. A true fever often means something else is going on in your body."

5. Home remedies such as chicken soup don’t work. "In 2000, researchers at the University of Nebraska studied homemade chicken soup and found that it had anti-inflammatory benefits, which can ease cold symptoms," Frayha writes. "Chicken soup exerted an anti-inflammatory effect — which could help a person feel better faster." She cautions, "There are dozens of home remedies that are said to help speed up recovery: ginseng, zinc, vitamin C, neti pots. There is little evidence to support them; some can even be harmful (for example, some zinc formulations can lead to permanent loss of smell)."

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