What’s True, Flu?
By Melissa Conroy
Chicken noodle soup and orange juice to sooth a cold. Sweat it out under a blanket with a growling stomach to cure a fever. Wear a hat every time you go out in the cold. Old wives tales abound when it comes to the annual sniffle fest that is Wintertime. But is any of this really true? Is it dangerous to go outside with wet hair or does garlic really ward off colds? Let’s take a look at some common saws about the cold and flu season.
“Feed a cold, starve a fever.” This belief can be traced to the 16th century lexicographer John Withals who wrote in his dictionary, “Fasting is a great remedy of fever.” Medicine has advanced since the 16th century, and we now know that depriving your body of nutrition only hinders the healing process. Also, during a fever, your body’s temperature rises as your immune system combats infection. As a result, your metabolism rises and you burn more calories. Thus, it is important to feed both a cold and a fever with nutritious food.
“You lose 80 percent of your heat through your head.” On one episode of Seinfield, Jerry Springer references this quote and quips, “Sounds like you could go skiing naked if you got a good hat.” The truth is, heat will escape from any uncovered part of the body. If you go outside in the cold wearing shorts or a sleeveless shirt, you will lose heat from those exposed areas. Since most people are fully clothed in protective gear when they trot outdoors in bitter weather, the head is the only exposed part of their bodies where heat can escape.
“Drink your orange juice for Vitamin C.” While it’s vital to stay hydrated while ill, orange juice does not have magical curing properties and Vitamin C won’t get you better faster. A 2007 study found that taking Vitamin C supplements at the start of an illness did nothing to shorten its duration. Orange juice is certainly better than soda, but it won’t do anything except make you feel a little better.
“Don’t go outside with wet hair.” Illnesses are caused by viruses, not by environmental exposure. You may get chilled if you skip the blow dryer, but you won’t get sick unless you are exposed to illness-causing viruses.
“Sweat out a fever.” Piling blankets on a feverish person will only make them more miserable and overheated. Fevers are caused by viruses and you can’t sweat them out of your system: Only your immune system can rid you of viruses. Excess sweating will pull vital moisture out of your body, something you don’t want because it is important to stay hydrated while ill. It is better to stay comfortable than roast under a comforter trying to “break” a fever.
“Avoid dairy when sick.” This one has some truth to it. Some people report that eating dairy foods while sick makes them produce more mucus and feel more queasy. However, there is no scientific evidence that you should avoid dairy when you are laid low by a cold or flu. If you’ve got the sniffles and ice cream is the only thing that looks good, go ahead and eat it.
“Put Vicks under your nose.” My parents, like many of their generation, greased us kids with Vicks VaporRub and smeared it under our noses when a cold descended on the house. However, putting Vicks under your nose can make it harder to breath. Vicks does not actually open up your nasal passages: What it does is trigger receptors in your brain that make you think your nose is more open. If you use Vicks, rub it on your chest, not under your nose.
Old wives tales persist, but when you are laid flat with a bug, there is not really much you can do except wait it out. Keep hydrated, eat nutritious food and get plenty of rest, and that will eventually see you on the road to recovery.