8 Myths About the Common Cold

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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They don't call it "common" for nothing. Adults average one to three colds per year, and kids average two to six. Yet familiarity doesn't always breed knowledge. Have you been fooled by any of the following cold myths?

Myth #1:
You can catch a cold by not wearing a jacket in chilly weather.

Truth: Colds are caused by more than 200 different viruses—not by getting chilled. It's true that most colds occur during fall and winter. That's partly because people spend more time indoors, which brings them in close contact with others who may be carrying germs. Some cold viruses also thrive when humidity is low, as it often is during the cooler months.

Myth #2: If your symptoms last longer than a week, it's not a cold.

Truth: Cold symptoms—such as a runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat, and coughing—can last from one to two weeks. Children, older adults, and people in poor health may have colds that linger longer. To make sure it's just a cold, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends seeing a doctor if your symptoms hang around for more than 10 days.

Myth #3: Yellow or green nasal mucus is a sure sign that it's something more than a cold.

Truth: When a cold first starts, the mucus from a runny nose is clear. After two to three days, as immune cells begin fighting back, the mucus changes to white or yellow. Then, as bacteria that normally live in the nose start recovering, the mucus may change to a greenish shade.

Myth# 4: Nonprescription cold medicines can help you recover faster.

Truth: Over-the-counter cold medications, such as decongestants and cough suppressants, may ease some symptoms, but they won't shorten an actual cold. Zinc lozenges or syrup may shorten cold symptoms by about two days, but they have side effects.  At best, most cold remedies make the cold easier to live with.

While you wait for a cold to run its course, there are other things you can do to relieve symptoms. Dehydration is the main reason folks feel badly during a cold. Rest in bed, and drink plenty of fluids. For a sore throat, gargle with warm salt water, suck on ice chips, or use lozenges. For a raw nose, smoothe on petroleum jelly, and for a stuffed-up nose, use saline nasal spray frequently.

Myth #5: If you have a cold, taking an antibiotic can't hurt—and might even help.

Truth: Antibiotics don't kill viruses, so they won't relieve a cold. They may be helpful if you develop a bacterial complication, such as sinusitis or an ear infection. However, it's important not to use antibiotics unless you really need them. The more often you take these drugs, the more likely you are to carry resistant germs that can't be killed by common antibiotics.

Myth #6: Echinacea supplements are scientifically proven to fight colds.

Truth: Echinacea is an herb that's touted as a cold remedy, but results of scientific studies have been mixed. Some suggest that echinacea might help treat colds if taken early in the illness. Others, including three large studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, found no evidence that echinacea cut the length or severity of colds.

Myth #7: Taking a high dose of vitamin C helps protect you from colds.

Truth: Several large studies in both adults and children have put this belief to the test. So far, however, there's no conclusive evidence that a high dose of vitamin C helps prevent colds. Also, taking too much vitamin C may cause severe diarrhea, so it's not risk-free.

Myth #8: It's hopeless! There's nothing you can do to ward off colds.

Truth: Actually, there's a lot you can do to reduce your risk. Cold viruses on your hands can get into your body easily through your nose and eyes. So, wash your hands often with soap and water or, if that's not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Keep your fingers off your face. And, if possible, keep your distance from other cold sufferers. 

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jun 1
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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