Common Misconceptions About the Common Cold

The most frequent reason to stay home from work is not the flu, bad period cramps, a headache or even a hangover. Forty percent of all time off work, 23 million lost days, and $3.5 million lost are a direct result of the common cold. Runny nose, cough, stuffy head. No wonder a multimillion-dollar industry has evolved to treat, prevent and shorten the course of the misery. The question is, how many of those over-the-counter products actually do anything?


Myth #1: Taking vitamins and zinc lozenges will make a cold go away quicker.

While some studies show that zinc lozenges taken every 2 hours during the first day of symptoms are beneficial, most studies are inconclusive. Likewise, no study consistently proves that vitamin C in orange juice, or any other vitamin or herb for that matter, will prevent a cold, or make an existing cold go away faster. Keep in mind that the profit-motivated companies that manufacture and distribute herbs and vitamins are non-FDA approved, and are not required to prove efficacy. They can, and do, say whatever they want to promote their product.


Myth #2: Echinacea prevents colds.

Echinacea was originally used by Native Americans to treat burns and snakebites. Today, retail sales for echinacea to treat and prevent the common cold top $40 million annually. Unfortunately, since it has never been proven in good scientific studies to make a difference beyond the placebo affect, the only ones who benefit from echinacea are the companies that sell it.


Myth #3: You’re more likely to catch a cold on an airplane than in someone’s house.

There is no evidence that recirculating air on a plane increases the likelihood of transmitting a cold. Jamming three people in a space meant for two, and practically sitting on someone’s lap who is coughing and sneezing is another story. Your best bet is to upgrade to first class and bring extra tissue for your seatmates. Alcohol-based hand rubs are a good alternative when there is limited access to soap and water. 


Myth #4

A certain effervescent vitamin supplement will reduce the chance that you will catch a cold even if you are surrounded by sneezers and coughers. 

There is a reason that this product is not FDA-approved. The manufacturers of this supplement used to advertise that it could prevent or cure the common cold, despite the lack of any real clinical evidence for such claims. In 2008, a suit was filed for false advertising, resulting in a $23.4 million class action settlement. Though it is now marketed as nothing more than an immunity booster, many people still think it will prevent or help cure a cold. If you are going to spend time in a room with sick people, better to spend your money on antiseptic hand gels and plenty of tissue.


There is one more myth I feel compelled to dispel. Despite what your mother told you, kissing is not the easiest way to transmit a cold. The virus responsible for colds doesn’t live in saliva, so even tongue-to-tonsil kissing doesn’t spread infection.


It’s sneezing, coughing and breathing that transmits droplets filled with virus particles. In addition, the virus can live on skin for 2 hours, so if you shake someone’s hand and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, you can become infected. Handwashing is actually the number-one way to prevent transmission of the virus. So feel free to kiss your ailing honey as long as he doesn’t shake your hand or breath on you.


Added to Illness Prevention, Wellness, Medical Myths, Immunity on Sun 04/08/2012