The common cold (medically called rhino-sinusitis) and its related symptoms are the most common cause for a visit to a General Physician or a Pediatric OPD. It is also the most common reason for missing work or school. Everyone suffers from the common cold once in a while. However, children are more prone to get it, perhaps because of lower immunity and also since they attend schools or daycare centers which are usually overcrowded. Since cold is so common, more myths are associated with it compared to any other ailment. This article aims to bust 12 of these myths. Although the article is mainly based on children, the facts detailed are similar for adults.
Myth#1- Cold causes the common cold
This is by far the most common myth. Everyone has been scolded by their mother for going out in cold weather without wearing warm clothes. In the olden days, before germs were discovered and people tried to explain diseases (and other natural phenomena), with whatever explanation seemed logical at that time. This myth probably started because the common cold occurs mostly in the winter months (and hence they named the ailment “the common cold”).
We get the common cold by infection with more than 200 different viruses. These viruses survive low humidity better, which occurs during cold winter months. Also, we tend to stay indoors in winter in close proximity to each other which increases the likelihood of the spread of the viruses.
However, cold air might damage our nasal wall and increase the possibility of infection. Hence exposure to cold air might increase the risk of the common cold. But it is not increased by getting drenched or by not wearing an extra layer of clothing. By the same token wearing more clothes does not make the common cold get cured faster. However, often cold is associated with fever which may lead to shivering. Wearing warm clothes or sleeping with an extra blanket during fever makes us feel comfortable.
Myth #2- Banana and other fruits increase the risk of the common cold
This is a corollary of the above myth. People believe the fruits are cold and hence increase the risk of getting the common cold. Neither fruits nor fruit juices, not even ice cream increase the risk of getting cold!
Myth #3- Coughing or sneezing onto a handkerchief is the most effective way of preventing the spread of the common cold
Coughing and sneezing onto handkerchiefs is taught in our homes and schools from an early age. The common cold occurs when we inhale the virus directly or touch the items harboring virus droplets and then touch our eyes or nose. Since handkerchiefs are touched repeatedly, we are likely to touch others or our own faces after coughing. As such the best way to cough is onto elbows since we are unlikely to touch anyone or our face with them.
If we do have disposable tissues, which are discarded after single-use, they are a good alternative. Other than this, isolating the child to a room (if the child is old enough to oblige), avoiding school throughout the duration of illness, using disposables to feed the child, encouraging the child to wear mask and hand-washing frequently aid in preventing spread to others
Myth #4- You need to show your child to a doctor for the common cold to be treated correctly
Most often common cold can be treated at home. You can use saline nasal drops and paracetamol if fever is present. Both of these are available over the counter. If your child feels lethargic and is not interested in play let him/her take a rest. Else, normal activities should be allowed as exercise boosts immunity. If the cough is also present, most Pediatric associations and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend home remedies for children like honey or ginger. Also, take plenty of water and other fluids like soups and tea, etc.
Cough is a symptom, not a disease and it is usually due to throat irritation. Mostly it is harmless (unless cough itself is harmful like in a child with a hernia). Cough syrups containing antihistaminics (like Ascoril, Benedryl, Phenergan) are not safe in children especially those less than 6 years. In adults, they might reduce the severity of symptoms, but not the duration of illness. On the other hand, they can cause dangerous respiratory depression in children. The WHO, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other Pediatric associations do not recommend their use in children.
Myth #6- Antibiotics will help your child to get well sooner
‘Antibiotic’ term comes from the two words anti (against) biotics (living organisms). In a broad sense, it is a drug acting against bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa, and worms. However, in common usage it means drugs acting against bacteria. As I said before common cold is caused by viruses. There are no drugs acting against the viruses which cause common cold (like rhino, rhino, adeno, or respiratory syncytial viruses). The treatment prescribed is symptomatic. Many times parents do notice their children becoming better after antibiotics were prescribed. But this is just due to the passage of time as cold is a self-limiting disease (the disease which improves by itself). Remember, the sequence does not imply consequence.
But what if you took antibiotics to prevent superadded bacteria infection (because you want to act fast and outsmart the bacteria)? The common cold does predispose to bacterial infection (occasionally!). But remember in our body we normally carry more bacterial cells than human cells (you are more a bacteria than human!) These bacteria are commensals, meaning they are harmless. On the contrary, they fight with the pathogenic bacteria (actually disease-causing bacteria) for nutrition and space. If we give antibiotics when it is not needed (in hope of preventing infection), the commensal bacteria are killed and pathogenic infection becomes more likely, and with the bacteria which are resistant to the antibiotics given. Commonly people develop diarrhea after taking antibiotics.
Myth #7- Yellow or thick green secretions suggests a bacterial infection
When the cold begins, the secretions are thin and clear. After 2 to 3 days, our immune system starts to fight the infection. Thick yellow or greenish discharge is due to the immune cells fighting the infection and is not a sign of bacteria.
Myth #8- If the symptoms persist for 3 to 4 days, then it not just a cold
Common cold can last up to 7 to 10 days. This is not a sign of some other condition. However, I would recommend you to show your child to a doctor if the symptoms persist for more than 5 days. Also, it is wise to see a doctor if
- High-grade fever i.e. 101 °F (38 °C), armpit or 102 °F (39 °C) oral. Read “Fever in children-the best strategies at 3 different sites-home, hospital or emergency“
- Any fever in less than 3-month-old
- Fever returning after a fever-free period
- Shortness of breath
- Severe throat pain, headache, or sinus pain
- Ear pain
- Extreme fussiness
- Unusual drowsiness
- Lack of appetite
If you are worried for any other reason also, it is best to show it to a doctor.
Myth #9- Repeated cough and cold suggests immuno-compromise
A child less than 6 years can have 6 to 12 episodes of the common cold in a year. The episodes decrease with age. A healthy adult has colds 2 to 3 times a year. Children get more frequent cold episodes after joining a school or they are exposed to cigarette smoke at home or if they have a long-term illness.
Myth #10-Tea is bad during cold
It is important to keep your child hydrated during the common cold. Tea is a good choice as it might even soothe the sore throat and reduce congestion. You might even give chicken soup or other warm liquids to your child. However, avoid giving high caffeine-containing liquids like coffee or soft drinks.
Myth #11- Bathing is bad during the cold
As discussed earlier, a cold environment is not much linked to the development of the common cold. Bathing usually has no beneficial or harmful effects. If however your child also has a fever, bathing with lukewarm water reduces body temperature and makes him/her feel better. Although, most parents would not resort to this (neither I am suggesting you do), if the child does get drenched inadvertently, it is not a cause for alarm. In fact, in a large review two studies demonstrated bathing to be beneficial, whereas the other 5 showed it to be equivocal.
Myth #12- The child (or adult) must be put on strict bed rest during cold.
Rest might help the child to improve faster if he or she has a severe illness and particularly not willing to play. If however, the child is interested in playing it suggests milder disease, which is much more common. Also, exercise boosts the immune system. So physical activities should not only be allowed but encouraged also.
Sources for the common cold facts
- WHO “Cough and cold remedies for the treatment of acute respiratory infections in young children”
The following are the links for the books on first-aid in infants and children