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Health Information Cold Hard Facts (and Misconceptions) About Winter Health

So you went out in the cold with wet hair. Now you're bound to get sick. Right? Wrong. This is one of the numerous myths and misconceptions about winter health that many people accept as fact.

It's not hard to see how some myths get started. For example, people do catch more colds in the winter. But according to John Segreti, MD, an epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center, that's not because it's cold or because the temperature changed abruptly.

"You get a cold or the flu because you get a virus," says Segreti. "In the winter, we spend more time indoors near other people — and their viruses."

You may have also heard that dry heat from your radiator can cause a cold or the flu. Not true.

"It can dry out your nasal passages and cause discomfort and nose bleeds," says Jay Dutton, MD, an otolaryngologist at Rush. "But it can't cause a respiratory infection."

Other myths aren't so clear-cut. For example, many people take vitamin C and supplements such as echinacea to fight respiratory infections, but studies differ on their effectiveness.

"I don't advise people to take them," says Segreti. "But if you believe they make you feel better, it's fine to take them."

While some myths are harmless, others can endanger your health. Think twice before you take these seriously:
 

  • Feed a cold, starve a fever. Even in reverse this myth is wrong, according to Segreti. You need good nutrition to get over any illness.
  • Antibiotics can cure a cold. These drugs don't work against viruses. And taking antibiotics unnecessarily can lead to drug-resistant bacteria.
  • You can get the flu from a flu shot. Don't let this myth stop you from getting a flu shot. There is no live virus in the shot, so it can't give you the flu. However, the nasal spray vaccine may cause mild flu symptoms.
  • If you get a flu shot, you won't get the flu. No vaccine is 100 percent effective. But that shouldn't stop you from getting a flu shot. It will protect you from the most common strains of flu, and your symptoms won't be as severe if you do get sick.

Not every adage is a myth, however. Take the one about snow shoveling and heart attacks.

"That's actually true," says Gary Schaer, MD, a Rush cardiologist. "Shoveling snow in the cold is associated with a higher risk for heart attack."

The reason? First, the cold constricts your arteries, increasing the workload on your heart. Sudden, extreme activity, like shoveling only adds to that demand.

"It's a more stressful activity than most winter sports," says Schaer. "In just two minutes, your heat rate can reach a dangerous point."

Healthy, active people should have no trouble shoveling snow. But many don't know they have health risks, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, so everyone should be careful.

"Use a small shovel and take frequent breaks," says Schaer.

All exercise is more stressful in cold weather, according to Schaer. If you're older than 60 or have questions about your health, see your doctor before participating in any strenuous winter activities, especially shoveling snow. Your doctor has the last word on health, and that's no myth.


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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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