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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.

Medically reviewed in December 2020

woman, cold, outside, tissue, sick
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The trees are bare, the air is frigid and night falls way too quickly. Winter 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.

Adult man sneezing
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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, since 2010, the flu has caused between 140,000 and 960,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 79,000 deaths each year.

Children under age 5—especially those under age 2—and adults over age 65 are more susceptible to serious illness from the flu. Pregnant women 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.

Doctor administering vaccine to man
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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. So what gives? For starters, flu vaccines 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 is redness, swelling and soreness at the injection site, which goes away in about 1 to 2 days.

Also, the flu vaccine 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 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 catch them 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, force yourself 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. 

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 in 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.

family, outside, snow, mother, father, son, playing
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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 allergies, an allergy to eggs or a history of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, you may not be able to get the vaccine.

Check with your doctor 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 be suffering from influenza, make an appointment to see your doctor.

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