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Debunking or defending popular medical wives’ tales regarding winter illness


“Going outside with wet hair, bare feet or when it’s cold will get you sick”

  • Colds and flus are caused by viruses passed to one another via nasal secretions or sputum.   It has nothing to do with wet hair or bare feet.  However, more people get respiratory illnesses in the winter.
  • Most studies show that exposure to cold doesn’t stress the immune system enough to make you sick.  However, flu virus thrive better  in cold, dry climates.
  • Why does your nose get runny when you’re out in the cold?  The nose warms and adds moisture to the cold, dry air coming in before it gets to the lungs.  With really cold air, it makes so much fluid that it starts to run out the end of your nose.

“Drinking milk when you’re sick makes more phlegm”

  • Milk doesn’t cause more phlegm.  It may appear that way because it’ll stick to the phlegm that’s already there.

“When mucus turns green it means you need an antibiotic”

  • When cold viruses infect the respiratory tract the body makes clear mucus to wash away the germs from the nose and sinuses.  After a few days, the body’s immune cells fight back causing thickening of the mucus from the white blood cells arriving.
  • The green comes from enzymes released by your white blood cells

“Giving _____   can help improve your cold or flu”

  • Vicks—debunked.  Vicks does nothing to change one’s amount of congestion or cough.  However, it may work as an aromatic oil in helping kids get more sleep, thus people find it helps in that regard.   Risks of camphor poisoning in small children if swallowed or absorbed through mucous membranes or broken skin.  Therefore, especially avoid rubbing it around a small child’s nose.
  • Chicken soup—defended.  Chicken soup acts as an anti-inflammatory by somehow inhibiting white blood cells from leaving the respiratory tract where they’re fighting viruses.  Chicken soup (or other hot fluids) may temporarily speed up the movement of mucus.
  • Honey—defended.  Honey helps coat the throat to protect it from traveling mucous that can irritate it.  Also, it helps ease a cough.

Gina Montion, MD

Posted in Blog on May 8th, 2014