Myths About Cough and Colds — How to Distinguish Fact From Fiction

Everyone can fall victim to the common cold. But just as everyone has some experience of it, many people are aware of traditional beliefs passed down generations on how to prevent or cure the common cold.

Whether you’re a parent or not, you’ve probably had your fair share of unsolicited tips and advice from other people, especially the older generation. These inherited unsubstantiated beliefs may range from disease prevention to cold and cough treatment; some may be trivial while others have possibly serious repercussions if disregarded.

Cough and Colds

So how do you know which advice to heed?

This article tackles the six common beliefs about cough, colds, and other related illnesses, and explains whether they are supported by facts or can be dismissed as absurd claims:

  1. Letting Sweat Dry on Your Back Causes Pneumonia

Arguably one of the most common pieces of advice younger generations get from their elders is to avoid leaving their sweat to dry on their backs. According to the belief, this can help prevent pneumonia.

However, this claim has virtually no medical support.

Pneumonia is a disease characterized by an infection that causes inflammation of airspaces in the lungs. It is commonly caused by fungi, viruses, and bacteria, especially Streptococcus pneumonia. Although other causes can lead to this disease, it is less frequent and most definitely doesn’t include dried sweat.

So, can dried-up sweat lead to pneumonia? The verdict is clear: this is fiction.

  2. All Coughs are Contagious

When people around you cough, covering your nose and mouth and steering clear of that individual is a common reaction. This reflex tends to root from the belief that all coughs are contagious.

While you should definitely protect yourself against illnesses, it is wrong to believe that anyone who coughs can actually get you sick, too.

The truth is that coughs caused by lung infections like flu and the common cold can be passed on to other people. However, coughs due to asthma, allergies, and other chronic pulmonary disorders are not contagious.

So, is this fact or fiction? Definitely the latter.

  3. Colds are No Longer Contagious Once You Have Symptoms

Some people believe that colds can no longer spread once the patient experiences symptoms. This belief is rooted in the belief that illnesses can be contagious even before people recognize its signs.

This is a myth.

A person showing cold symptoms can still be contagious. Although the risk of contagion is higher during the onset of the sickness, viruses are good at infecting people and can still transfer from one person to another while the patient’s immune system responds to them.

When a person is sick, its development is sometimes gradual. This means that a scratchy throat can actually be a sign of illness. That said, if you feel a cold coming on, you should take necessary precautions.

Unless absolutely necessary, avoid leaving the house. Steer clear of other people, especially those who are more vulnerable like babies, people with chronic lung or heart diseases, and the elderly. Better safe than sorry.

  4. Antibiotics Cure Colds

The short answer: not necessarily.

Based on research, antibiotics cannot cure a cold. However, it can be prescribed for underlying conditions that cause a runny nose and coughing, such as pneumonia and other bacterial infections.

There’s another misconception that links colds and antibiotics together. Based on this belief, nasty-colored mucus is a sign that it is time to take antibiotics.

Previously, people justified undergoing antibiotic treatment from the color of the mucus produced from a runny nose, particularly when it starts turning yellow or green. Unfortunately, this resulted in an overuse of such medicine.

Instead of helping, the irresponsible use of these drugs has caused germs to mutate and develop resistance. This resulted in the birth of what doctors call the “superbugs.” These pathogens are very difficult to deal with and can even be life-threatening if not dealt with correctly.

So, rather than being a telltale sign of the need for antibiotics, the change in color of the mucus is actually a sign that the immune system is hard at work and is winning the battle. Moreover, any chronic inflammation (e.g., poorly controlled allergies) can also lead to thick and nasty-colored mucus.

  5. Cold Weather Causes Cough and Colds

In olden times, before the discovery of microscopic organisms such as bacteria and viruses, men needed a way to explain the sickness they experienced. This is why exposure to the elements is commonly blamed for coughs and colds.

People still believe this to be true even today that pathogens have been discovered. But while exposure to viruses and bacteria invisible to the naked eye can definitely get you sick, it isn’t a bad idea to wear your coat or seek shelter from the rain.

Generally, heading out under these weather conditions without proper protection can actually make you feel ill. Prolonged exposure to the cold can also weaken your immunity, making you more vulnerable to infectious agents.

The cold weather causing cough is another story.

In reality, cold weather does cause one to cough, as cold air – which is often dry – tends to irritate the airways. This is especially true for people with asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other chronic lung ailments.

The final verdict? True for coughs but not necessarily for colds.

  6. Drinking Milk Increases Phlegm Production

Often, children are not allowed to consume dairy products when they have a chesty cough, especially milk. But this is hardly necessary, not to mention difficult for babies who mostly rely on milk for nourishment.

The truth is that milk’s texture can cause some to people feel like they have thicker mucus and lead to swallowing difficulties. Despite this, there remains no clinical evidence that milk can lead to higher mucus production, let alone cause chest cough to worsen.

Separate Fact from Fiction

Everyone can experience coughs and colds, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should suffer from them for long. A combination of effective cough medicine and wisdom in discerning fact from fiction is your best bet at overcoming them.

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