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The Truth Behind Mom's Cold and Flu Advice

Experts separate myth from fact in 10 common cold tips.
By David Freeman
WebMD Feature

Mothers are celebrated (if sometimes vilified) for their eagerness to advise their children on matters big and small: how to behave, what to wear, whom to marry, when to have kids ... and, oh yes, how to stay healthy during cold and flu season.

Does science back up what Dr. Mom told you about the common cold? Or was she full of hot air? Here's what real doctors have to say about 10 familiar cold-busting tips:

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1. "Don't forget to wash your hands."

Mom was right on this one. Colds commonly spread when we touch someone or something that harbors cold-causing viruses and then infect ourselves by touching our nose or eyes. Hand washing is great at eliminating these viruses before they sicken us (and before we spread them to others).

Hand sanitizers work well, as does plain old soap and water (no need for antibacterial soap). The key is to wash thoroughly -- and regularly.

"Hand washing is part of the routine in my home," says William Schaffner, MD, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt Medical School in Nashville, Tenn. "The first thing we do after coming home is hang up our jackets, and then we wash our hands."

Be aware that cold viruses can survive on objects for several hours -- perhaps overnight, says infectious disease specialist J. Owen Hendley, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville.

2. "Have a little chicken soup, dear."

Seems mother may have been on to something with this one, too. Limited research suggests that it can be helpful. A University of Nebraska study shows that traditional chicken soup "may contain a number of substances with beneficial medicinal activity." 

What's more, the hot vapors rising from a bowl of broth help open a stuffy nose, and consuming liquid of any kind helps keep you hydrated.

Anything else? Chicken soup may melt your malaise simply by reminding you of the love of a devoted parent. "If chicken soup makes you feel better, use it," says Hendley.

3. "Feed a cold, starve a fever."

Scant research has been done on this familiar advice. A small study published in 2002 suggests that eating may influence short-term immune function, but whether this has any effect on the course of a cold is unknown.

Hendley, for one, is unconvinced. "This is a faintly titillating study," he says. "But it provides no support for the 'feed a cold' idea. I grew up hearing this advice, but I just don't believe it's true."

Schaffner recommends "listening to your body": If you feel hungry, he says eat something simple, like soup, applesauce, or toast.

4. "Bundle up, or you'll catch your death of cold."

Mom was way off base here. There's no evidence that low temperatures or damp conditions make you more vulnerable to colds.

Colds are more common in colder seasons, but scientists now believe this is due in part because low temperatures and low humidity facilitate the transmission of virus-laden microscopic moisture droplets from person to person, says Schaffner. So while a warm coat and galoshes may make you comfy in inclement weather, they won't protect you from colds.

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