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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

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The Truth Behind Mom's Cold and Flu Advice

By Barbara Brody
WebMD Feature

Mom may have your best interest at heart, but does she actually know what's best when it comes to coping with colds and flu? While some common mom-approved tips are spot-on, others are totally bogus -- and there's a lot of gray area in the middle. Read on as we reveal the facts you need to help protect yourself.

Mom said: "Don't even think about going outside without a jacket."

The reality: When the temperature dips well below freezing, it's smart to grab a coat, hat, and gloves before you step outside. (You probably ought to dry your wet hair as well.) These commonsense measures will help keep you warm and cozy, plus they'll protect you from frostbite and hypothermia. But here's where mom got it wrong: Feeling chilly does not make you any more likely to catch a cold.

Colds are caused by viruses, period. While you may be more prone to getting sick during the winter, the blustery winds outside have nothing to do with it. A bigger issue is that people tend to spend most of their time indoors, which makes it easier for germs to spread, explains Andrew Pekosz, PhD, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University.

Still, you may be wondering if temperature changes can mess with your resistance and make you more vulnerable to picking up a bug. False, Pekosz says. "I haven't seen any hard scientific data to back that up."

Mom said: "Chicken soup is the best cure for the common cold."

The reality: "Cure" is a big overstatement, but mom was on to something: Soup is mostly liquid, and staying hydrated may help you feel better and heal faster, Pekosz says. Plus a bowl of hot, steamy broth can temporarily ease a stuffy nose.

Chicken also contains an amino acid called cysteine, which can help thin mucus. "It's similar to a drug, acetylcysteine, that is sometimes prescribed to people who have bronchitis," says Peter Richel, MD, chief of pediatrics at Northern Westchester Hospital.

Mom said: "Wash your hands!"

The reality: Mom wins this round. Frequent hand washing is one of the best things you can do to avoid catching whatever bugs might be going around. The key to making it count is doing it right: You need to use lots of soapy water and scrub for at least 20 seconds. You should also think about what you're touching right afterward, Pekosz says. If you're in a public restroom, use a paper towel instead of your bare hand when you touch the door handle. At home, you should regularly disinfect doorknobs with Lysol spray or disinfectant wipes. And don't forget about your germy computer keyboard. Pekosz says it's a good idea to run a disinfectant wipe over those keys.

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