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7 Cold and Flu Myths—Debunked

Get the facts on the cold and flu and keep your family healthy this season.

Updated on March 27, 2023

woman blowing her nose into a tissue
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The trees are losing leaves, the air is cooler, and night falls way too quickly. Fall is in full swing—and another common sign of the season are colds and flu. It may feel like everyone you know is sick, but there’s no need to panic; half the things you’ve heard about cold and flu viruses aren’t even true. Learn the facts about the common cold and flu to keep yourself and your family healthy this season.

sick man on couch blowing nose
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Myth: The flu isn’t that serious

The flu is no joke. Some people develop symptoms so severe they end up in the hospital. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that between 2010 and 2020, the flu caused between 140,000 and 710,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 52,000 deaths each year.

Children under age 5—especially those under age 2—and adults over age 65 are more susceptible to becoming seriously ill from the flu. Pregnant people and people with chronic health problems such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes are also at increased risk. Complications from the flu can range from bacterial pneumonia to ear infections, along with sinus infections and worsening of preexisting medical conditions.

being vaccinated in left arm
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Myth: You can get the flu from the flu vaccine

Sometimes people come down with the flu soon after they’ve received a flu vaccine. That’s because the vaccinations can take up to two weeks to work. If someone becomes ill with the flu, it’s most likely because they were exposed to the virus either before or within two weeks of getting the shot. The most common reaction to flu vaccination is redness, swelling, and soreness at the injection site, which goes away in about one or two days.

To know: The flu shot doesn’t protect against all flu viruses. It only works against the strains scientists estimate to be the most common in a given year. It is still possible to get sick from another type of flu virus. Regardless, the best way to protect yourself and others from the flu is to get vaccinated.

woman taking a shower, washing his hair
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Myth: You’ll catch a cold from stepping outside with wet hair

Despite what your mother told you, being cold or wet has little to do with whether you develop a cold or the flu. The only way to become infected is to be exposed to a virus.

It’s true that you are more likely to get sick when the weather is cold, but it’s because viruses thrive in cold air. Dry air also sucks moisture out of the nose, making it hospitable for intruding viruses.

 

chicken noodle soup
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Myth: Feed a cold, starve a fever

Fever or no fever, when you’re sick, it's important to maintain a healthy diet and drink plenty of fluids. Think water, juice, and hot tea. Even if you’re not feeling hungry, try to eat. Foods cannot prevent you from getting sick, but a big bowl of chicken noodle soup can soothe your sore throat and help keep you hydrated. Be sure to get lots of rest, too, and consider using a clean humidifier or cool mist vaporizer to help you feel better.

oranges
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Myth: Vitamin C can fend off a cold

While vitamin C is important for our bodies, research has yet to confirm its effectiveness for preventing colds. There is some evidence that when taken regularly in high doses—greater than 200 milligrams a day—vitamin C may shorten the duration of cold symptoms slightly. But keep in mind, upping your vitamin C intake after a cold has started might not help.

Two large oranges will give you about 200 milligrams of vitamin C. The current recommended dietary allowance of vitamin C is 75 milligrams a day for women and 90 milligrams a day for men.

young healthy woman with a nurse placing a bandaid on her arm after a flu shot
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Myth: Healthy people don’t need the flu vaccine

Your best line of defense against the flu is to get the flu vaccine. The CDC recommends that most people 6 months and older get vaccinated every year. If you have severe, life-threatening allergies to any ingredient in a flu vaccine, you should not get that vaccine.  

If you have a history of Guillain Barré Syndrome, check with your healthcare provider (HCP) to see if the flu vaccine is right for you. Flu viruses change each year, so don’t count on last year’s shot to protect you this year.

Young woman blowing her nose
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Myth: A bad cold can turn into the flu

Colds and flu are both viral infections, but they stem from different viruses. A cold will never turn into the flu. While a cold can make you feel as lousy as the flu, they have different symptoms.

Cold symptoms primarily include a runny or stuffy nose and a sore throat. Flu symptoms tend to come on suddenly and are more severe. They may include the symptoms above, along with fever, body aches, fatigue, sore throat, cough, headaches, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. However not everyone who gets the flu will present with a fever or similar symptoms.

The flu can also lead to pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses, and it typically lasts longer than your run-of-the-mill cold. If you suspect you could have influenza, make an appointment to see your HCP.

Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seasonal Flu: Burden of Flu. Page last reviewed October 4, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seasonal Flu: Who is at higher risk of flu complications. Page last reviewed September 6, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seasonal Flu: Key facts about seasonal flu vaccine. Page last reviewed December 19, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common colds: protect yourself and others. Page last reviewed November 29, 2021.
National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus: Common cold. Accessed on February 24, 2023.
National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin C fact sheet for health professionals. Page last updated March 26, 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seasonal Flu: Prevent Flu: Who should and who should NOT get a flu vaccine. Page last reviewed August 25, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seasonal Flu: Cold versus flu. Page last reviewed September 29, 2022.

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