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Germs of Truth

Feed a fever? Nonsense. Chicken soup? Now that's not a bad idea. In cold and flu season, adages abound, but not all are medically sound.

March 30, 1998|DON COLBURN | THE WASHINGTON POST

'Tis the season--still--for that germy double whammy: the common cold and the more exotic influenza. A cold attacks the airways: Its hallmarks are a stuffed-up, runny nose, hacking cough and scratchy throat. Influenza mugs the whole body with fever, chills, fatigue, aches and an overall crummy feeling.

Ubiquitous, contagious and incurable, the two have much in common. Both usually last a week or more. Both are caused by viruses, a word whose Latin root means "slimy poison."

But while some of their symptoms overlap and their names are invoked by some sufferers almost interchangeably, the common cold and influenza, or flu, are distinct illnesses caused by separate viral "bugs." More than 200 viruses, about half known as rhinoviruses--from the Greek word for "nose"--can cause a cold. An array of shifting viral strains--classified as A, B or C types and named for the city where they were first identified--is responsible for the influenza epidemics that annually sweep the globe.

Each year, they make millions of people miserable. Perhaps because they are so widespread and incurable, flu and colds have also given rise to a rich if sometimes-misleading mythology, including . . .

Wear a Coat or You'll Catch Cold

Wrong.

Harsh weather alone will not cause flu or the common cold. For either illness to strike, it takes a germ, a virus.

"It has nothing to do with being outside in cold weather," according to guidelines for prevention and treatment of colds and flu compiled recently by the American Lung Assn.

A cold takes hold when the virus reaches the lining of nasal passages, via the eyes, nose or mouth. Colds are spread mainly by touch, kissing or other direct contact--as when someone with a cold coughs or sneezes in your face. People are most contagious during the first three days of a cold.

The influenza virus is spread mainly by microscopic droplets released into the air by sneezing, coughing, speaking or breathing. When the droplets are inhaled by another person, the virus can invade the nose, throat or airways in its new host.

Colds and flu flourish in winter because people spend more time cooped up inside--increasing the chances of person-to-person spread--and because the most common viruses survive better in low humidity.

Exposure to extreme cold can increase susceptibility to pneumonia--inflammation of the lungs. And recent studies have concluded that chronic, long-lasting emotional stress can make people more vulnerable to colds.

You Can Get the Flu From a Flu Shot

Not so.

The viruses that are used to make the flu vaccine are grown in chicken eggs, then killed by a chemical so that they are no longer infectious. The most common side effect is a mildly sore arm. In some people, especially children who have not been exposed to the flu, the vaccine can cause flu-like symptoms of fever and tiredness for a day or two.

An annual flu shot is recommended for: people 65 or older; those with chronic heart, lung or kidney disease, diabetes, anemia or asthma; residents of nursing homes; and health-care workers. In addition, doctors increasingly advise a flu shot for anyone who wants to reduce the risk of getting sick. (People allergic to eggs, however, should not get a flu shot, because the vaccine may contain some egg protein.)

"The flu vaccine significantly reduces the chance of infection, and even if you do get sick, your symptoms will be much less severe," said Jehan El-Bayoumi, an internist at George Washington University Medical Center. She advises even healthy people to consider a flu shot--to protect themselves and those around them.

For the common cold, medical science has little to offer in the way of protection. There is no vaccine against cold viruses. The best way to prevent colds is to wash your hands a lot and not get sneezed on.

Starve a Cold, Feed a Fever

No one knows where that saying came from, or why it caught on. But it's misleading at best, doctors say.

There's no reason not to eat when you have a cold, or to force yourself to eat when you're woozy from a flu-caused fever. And if you've heard it as "Feed a cold, starve a fever," it doesn't make any sense that way, either.

The point is: Drink plenty of nonalcoholic fluids, whether you have a cold or a fever. And eat when you feel like it. ("Stomach flu" is a misnomer, because the influenza virus almost never causes gastrointestinal problems; what people mean by "stomach flu" is something else.)

Treat a Cold and It Lasts a Week; Ignore It and It Lasts Seven Days

That adage remains largely true.

But medications can lessen discomfort and help get cold sufferers through the night or day. Nonprescription remedies, including decongestants, cough suppressants and antihistamines, may relieve symptoms but cannot cure, prevent or shorten a cold. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is recommended for headache and general discomfort, because it is less likely than aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to upset the stomach.

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