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Feed a Fever, Starve a Cold: Truth or Myth?

Posted Oct 26 2010 4:11pm

We’ve all heard it before: “Bundle up or you’ll catch cold.” “Don’t kiss me, I have a cold.” Or “Feed a fever, starve a cold.” While many old adages have truth to them, not all are entirely accurate. Read about some of the common myths and misconceptions about the common cold.

Contrary to what your mother told you, and what you may have told your own kids, chilling and dampness have nothing to do with susceptibility to the common cold. Back in the 1950′s, at the Common Cold Research Unit in England, then-director Christopher Andrewes, M.D., made volunteers stand nearly naked in frigid meat lockers and drafty gyms wearing little but wet socks for hours on end, and in no experiment did those who got chilled catch more colds, or worse colds, than people who spent the same amount of time happily ensconced in warm cozy rooms.

The contemporary twist on the “chill” myth is that people who live in centrally air-conditioned homes or work in modern office buildings often blame their colds on over-active air-conditioners. The problem is not the air’s low temperature, Dr. Cooper says, but rather it’s low relative humidity. Air conditioning dries air, often to the point where it may dehydrate the protective mucus in the nasopharynx and allow cold viruses to do their worst.

Dr. Dick infected one member of 16 couples with a cold virus, and had them to plant an extended kiss on their partners’ mouths. Only one partner (6 percent) caught the cold. During colds, the virus generally stays in the nose and throat. The mouth remains remarkably virus-free. Then Dick infected one member of 24 married couples and tracked them as they lived their daily lives together for more than a week. Only nine of the spouses (38 percent) caught the cold, and risk was unrelated to their kissing or lovemaking. The only risk factor was the total amount of time they spent together. There’s no reason to refrain from kissing cold sufferers, especially if the kiss is a peck on the cheek. “Just don’t rub noses with them,” Dick advises, “or you risk passing the cold by nose-to-nose transmission.”

Or is it: “Starve a fever, stuff a cold”? You hear it both ways, but don’t starve or stuff either one. Drown colds in plenty of fluids, Dr. Simons says. As for feeding and starving, colds often suppress appetite, and some people say that eating lightly or drinking only vegetable juices speeds their recovery. Listen to your body. Eat well if you feel hungry. Refrain if you don’t.

Not so fast. Antibiotics treat only bacteria. They are powerless against viruses, including the viruses that cause colds. Antibiotics can help only when you have a bacterial infection, for example, sinusitis, on top of your cold. Such secondary bacterial infections occur in only about 10 percent of colds, according to a study by Ralph Gonzalez, M.D., of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. Doctors know this, but come under pressure for antibiotics from their patientsand wind up writing some 12 million antibiotic prescriptions a year for colds and other viral infections. These unnecessary prescription add to health care costs and contribute the development of antibiotic-resistant micro-organisms.

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