The Cold Facts
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The Cold Facts

Does echinacea stave off sniffles? Will chicken soup cure that cold? Here are the myths and facts about cold and flu remedies.

Was It Something You Ate?

Holidays can be hazardous to your health. The parties, crowded malls, and family gatherings mean exposure to lots of people and, unfortunately, lots of germs. Scientists have yet to find a magic potion that fully protects against those stubborn viruses that cause so much misery. But there are things you can do to help fend off a cold or the flu and alleviate symptoms should you get sick. Here, LHJ separates fact from fiction to help you get through the season:

Myth: Vitamin C

A handful of vitamin C tablets a day keeps the doctor away.

Fact Vitamin C's reputation as a cold fighter originated with the late Nobel prize-winning scientist Linus Pauling, who advocated megadoses of the antioxidant. Pauling's recommendation, however, was based mostly on theory. Over the last 20 years, numerous studies have found no conclusive evidence that large doses stop the spread of colds. In fact, a recent report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences warned that high doses can cause diarrhea. Other studies found that too much vitamin C can skew the results of blood and urine tests.

Experts now believe that vitamin E may be the real immunity booster. Doses up to 200 IU (international units) have been shown to enhance immune function in the elderly, and scientists speculate that E can similarly help younger adults. At Tufts University, in Boston, researchers are studying whether daily E supplements can prevent respiratory infections in the elderly.

Myth: Out in the cold

Go out in the cold without your coat on or with wet hair, and you're sure to get sick.

Fact While extreme exposure to the cold weather outside can make you sick, it's spending more time indoors to escape the frigid temperatures that raises the risk of germs spreading. Also, while colds occur year-round, the viruses that cause them thrive when there's less humidity. Cold weather may also dry out nasal passages, creating a more hospitable environment for infection.

Flu Shots and Zinc

Myth: Flu shots

Get a flu shot and you'll be safe from the bug for the year.

Fact The influenza vaccine provides the best insurance against contracting the flu, but it's no guarantee: studies in healthy young adults show it fails to protect up to 30 percent of the time. Its effectiveness varies because influenza viruses are constantly mutating, so vaccine manufacturers working nine months in advance are not always able to perfectly match the strains that will circulate in the U.S. during the December to March flu season.

Still, the flu shot is recommended for people age 50 and older, pregnant women, and those with chronic illnesses. Though the vaccine may be less effective in the elderly or people whose health is otherwise compromised, it helps prevent serious complications for those who do get infected. But remember -- it takes two weeks for the body to build immunity.

Myth: Zinc

Zinc lozenges are the sweetest-tasting way to shorten the length of a cold.

Fact Of the dozen studies conducted on the effects of zinc, a best-seller during the cold and flu season, half found that sucking on zinc lozenges every few hours sped recovery from the common cold, but half found they didn't help at all. While popping lozenges may seem harmless, too much zinc -- over 150 mg a day -- may actually reduce the body's ability to fight infection. Excess zinc also can lower "good" cholesterol.

Still, optimism is growing about an over-the-counter nasal gel with zinc now in drugstores, marketed under the names Zicam and Zinc-Up. A study of 213 patients found the gel shortened a cold's duration -- to two days, compared to nine with a placebo -- when taken within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms. The gel, sold in a pump bottle, attacks colds by delivering zinc to the nasal passage, where infection begins, researchers say. The zinc ion binds to the virus, preventing it from attaching to the nasal lining. Researchers say it's impossible to overdose on the gel, which costs about $10, and it doesn't cause the aftertaste associated with lozenges.

Kissing and Echinacea

Myth: Kissing

Kiss someone with a cold and you're sure to get sick.

Fact Shaking someone's hand or touching a doorknob are as risky as kissing. Most colds are spread either through direct contact with respiratory secretions or by inhaling virus-laden droplets that spurt into the air through coughs and sneezes. The best preventive measure: Wash your hands with soap and water frequently, and avoid rubbing your nose and eyes -- entry points for infection. Rhinoviruses can live outside the nasal passage for up to three hours, so disinfecting exposed surfaces may be helpful. Studies suggest rhinovirus colds are most contagious between the second and fourth day.

Myth: Echinacea

Echinacea is a harmless herbal remedy that keeps you healthy when everyone else has a cold.

Fact Echinacea (or purple coneflower) is touted as an infection fighter, yet studies have been contradictory. While some have shown it fights colds, a recent report said it had no effect on infection rates or symptoms. In fact, prolonged use of echinacea may suppress rather than boost the immune system, have a toxic effect on the liver, and interfere with medications.

Chicken Soup and OTC Remedies

Myth: Chicken soup

Grandma's chicken soup cures colds.

Fact Soup can't stop a virus, but it can ease congestion, soothe the throat, and keep you hydrated, lessening chances of secondary bacterial infections. Hot tea and other warm liquids work just as well. Stay away from caffeine and alcohol, which cause dehydration.

Myth: OTC remedies

Cold and flu relief is just a trip to the drugstore away.

Fact There's no perfect over-the-counter remedy. Antihistamines and cough suppressants bring temporary relief but often produce side effects such as drowsiness and gastrointestinal upsets. Nasal decongestants can lead to recurring stuffiness. Aspirin can ease achiness, but it may actually increase nasal congestion in adults.

Relief Ahead

More than 200 viruses cause the sneezing and congestion associated with colds. However, doctors soon may have something new to offer patients: Pleconaril, a drug that inhibits the growth of the rhinoviruses and enteroviruses responsible for more than half of all upper-respiratory infections. In studies, cold sufferers showed a significant reduction in symptoms within a day of taking the drug. Overall, it shortened a cold by about one and a half days. Marketed as Picovir, the compound has been under FDA review and could be available this year.

Another potential cold fighter in early stages of testing is a nasal spray called AG7088. The compound blocks an enzyme that's key to replication of the rhinovirus. The manufacturer of the spray hopes this will relieve symptoms and reduce a cold's duration by several days.

Reviewed October, 2002.