Busted: Top 5 Cold and Flu Myths

'Tis the season for colder weather, impending family gatherings, holiday preparations ... and sick days caused by colds and the flu.

Along with flu season comes the age-old bits of wisdom from our grandmothers (and their grandmothers). But research has proven several to be false.

One of the biggest myths is that going out into the cold without a coat or with wet hair will make you sick.

"There are actually some studies on that, and it's not the case," said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, in Nashville. "That doesn't mean we should go out and get cold and wet, because it's very uncomfortable, but we won't get sick from it."

In addition to this widely held belief, the next few pages feature a few other common cold and flu myths now busted by experts.

Cold and Flu Myths

PHOTO: 5 Cold and Flu Myths
Peter Dazeley/Photographers Choice/Getty Images
Despite the belief that flu shots actually cause the flu, experts say it's absolutely not true.
Flu Shots Can Cause the Flu

"That is the big myth, that no matter how hard we try and put it down, it keeps circulating," said Schaffner. "It's completely untrue."

The flu vaccine, he explained, is made up of only parts of the flu virus, so it's not a whole virus, and as a result, it can't make you sick.

The form of the vaccine that is sprayed into the nose, he added, is a tamed full virus, and you can get some symptoms from it, such as a sore throat or a runny nose that last about a day, but it will not get into the lungs and cause the flu.

Many people who get flu shots later report they get the flu anyway, so they believe the shots don't work.

"The vaccine isn't 100 percent effective, it's only about 50 to 70 percent effective," said Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Langone Medical Center, in New York City. "But it will mollify the virus, and hopefully the person won't have a severe reaction."

If a person who received the vaccine does get the flu, it will be much less serious than if he or she were unvaccinated.

"The flu vaccine is not perfect," said Schaffner. "We know that the flu virus has the capacity to change or mutate, and in those circumstances, the flu vaccine this year may not perfectly match the mutated influenza virus that's going around our communities."

Also, as people get older, Schaffner explained, the vaccine doesn't work as well, but he stressed that they are much less likely to develop pneumonia or be hospitalized for a severe case of the flu.

In other instances, people may get colds or other viruses that can lead to flulike symptoms, but they are not related to the vaccine and are just coincidences.

It's also common to experience reactions to the shot, such as achiness or a low-grade fever, but these symptoms are not a result of having the flu.

Although experts recommend flu shots, they also stress that washing hands is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of colds, flu and other illnesses.

Cold and Flu Myths

PHOTO: 5 Cold and Flu Myths
Hilary Brodey/Getty Images
Experts recommend everyone older than six months of age get a flu shot.
Younger, Healthier Adults Don't Need Flu Shots

Younger adults who are healthy overall may not believe they need flu shots, that the vaccines are for children and the elderly.

Not true, say the experts.

"Influenza is the important winter virus," said Schaffner. "It's the most likely to get you, and it can put a healthy person in the intensive care unit in 48 hours."

Even mild cases of the flu, while they may not be debilitating, can still pose a danger to others. People may not feel sick and may go to work or school, but they can pass on the virus to others.

The spread of the swine flu in 2009 proved that younger adults are just as susceptible to a serious case of the flu.

"H1N1 affected younger people, not older ones," said Tierno. "Older people had some antibody memory, and it was the younger people who were the ones who were in trouble, especially if they were overweight or had other underlying disorders."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that anyone older than six months of age be vaccinated.

Cold and Flu Myths

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Anne Milford and Jennifer Gauvain co-wrote the self-help book "How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy" after interviewing hundreds of divorced women.
Vitamins and other Herbal Remedies are Cold and Flu Fighters

Despite the belief that vitamin C and echinacea can help the body fight off colds or the flu, data suggest these claims may be a bit overblown.

"The data on echinacea are quite clear -- no one has been able to define a consistent, good effect," said Shaffner.

The data are less clear on vitamin C.

"It's still an open question," Schaffner added. "There are studies on both sides. Some show no effect and some show a small effect."

Low levels of vitamin C and vitamin D could affect the course of the flu, but making efforts to achieve above-normal levels are probably not helpful.

"You just want to bring those levels back to normal," said Tierno. "Above normal has not been shown to be very effective."

Zicam, a popular over-the-counter zinc-based cold and allergy remedy is also not effective, according to Schaffner.

There is one old, widely used herbal remedy that actually does tame the flu virus -- the star anise plant. Modern medicine has made good use of the plant, Tierno explained. It's one of the main ingredients in Tamiflu, an antiviral medication used as flu therapy.

Cold and Flu Myths

PHOTO: 5 Cold and Flu Myths
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Antibiotics are ineffective against colds and the flu.
Getting Rid of the Flu Means Antibiotics

Since colds and the flu are caused by viruses and not by bacteria, antibiotics will not be effective against either illness.

"We now have antiviral influenza drugs, like Tamiflu, that can make the illness much milder," said Schaffner.

Contrary to popular belief, people with flu symptoms should try and see a healthcare provider in order to get antiviral therapy started as soon as possible, especially those who are prone to complications.

While antibiotics will not work against colds or the flu, there are times when providers may prescribe them.

"It's true that there are some people who are in a certain age group, like the elderly, who may get a secondary infection, like pneumonia, so antibiotics may prevent that. There are also people who are prone to sinus infections, so even though the antibiotics will not eradicate the cold virus, they may prevent a secondary infection," said Tierno.

Using antibiotics against virus not only is ineffective, Tierno said, but also contributes to antibiotic resistance.

Cold and Flu Myths

PHOTO: 5 Cold and Flu Myths
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The flu virus strain changes every year, and so does the vaccine.
Flu Shot Last Year, Don't Need One This Year

The flu virus changes from year to year, and so does the vaccine. That's why experts recommend getting vaccinated against the virus annually.

This year, however, is a bit unique, explained Tierno, because the strain of virus this year is the same as last year's. This means that this year's flu shot is the same as last year's.

But he recommends that people still get vaccinated.

"There's no guarantee that the flu shot given last year gave people sufficient antibody protection, and this year's shot will boost that protection," he said.

"While it's true that some people may still get the flu, it won't be a full-blown infection, and it's more likely they won't get infected at all."

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