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The Common Cold: Facts and Myths

As you read this, five percent of us are waging war against the common cold. Up to a billion colds a year occur in the U.S. alone, causing about 60 million lost days of school and 50 million lost days of work—adding up to $25 billion in lost productivity. To make up for it, Americans spend around $5 billion on over-the-counter remedies.

Colds are the leading cause of visits to the doctor: Antibiotics are prescribed for more than 60 percent of common colds, despite the fact that bacteria are involved in only two percent.

The Cold, Hard Facts

  • A single cold virus can have 16 million offspring within 24 hours.
  • The velocity of a sneeze is about as fast as a professional baseball pitcher can throw a fastball – about 100 miles (150 km) per hour.
  • The longest sneezing bout ever recorded is that of 12-year-old UK schoolgirl Donna Griffiths, who started sneezing on January 13, 1981, and sneezed for 978 days.
  • Some unfortunate people have slipped a disc because they twisted their necks sideways while sneezing.

Popular Cold Myths

You probably have believed one or two of these myths—they’ve been around a long time. So let’s put them to bed!

  1. Being cold causes a cold. Perhaps the most widespread cold myth of all states that exposure to cold temperatures causes people to catch colds. People have believed this folk wisdom for years, including the preacher John Wesley and the popular 18th century doctor William Buchan. This is presumably because colds are much more common in the winter, and cold air often causes a runny nose.

    However, studies from the 1950s and 1960s showed that when volunteers (actually, prison inmates) were kept chilly or very cold, they were not more susceptible to infection with a cold virus, and when they had a cold, it did not make their colds worse.

  2. Make the most of it. Some people believe that treating cold symptoms is bad for you because they help you recover. But research has shown that about a quarter of people who catch a cold don’t have any symptoms, and beat the virus just as easily. Furthermore, sneezing and runny noses do not eliminate the virus completely, as it is still reproducing in the cells of the nasal lining. In addition, the more you treat your symptoms, the less likely you are to spread your cold.
  3. Feed a cold and starve a fever (or vice versa). The origins of this saying are unclear, but it may have begun as sensible advice that was misinterpreted somewhere along the line. In any case, it probably is not a good idea. Eating well supports your immune system, and you need more fluids than usual when you have a cold if you want to avoid dehydration.
  4. Antibiotics cure the common cold. As noted above, antibiotics usually do not help a cold. Antibiotics work against bacteria, while most colds are viral.

    The overprescription of unwarranted antibiotics has caused our bodies to develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When you really do have a bacterial infection, antibiotics may not be able to treat it. They may actually make colds worse by killing the ‘friendly’ bacteria and creating an environment more hospitable to the virus. And just in case you aren’t already suffering enough, antibiotics can have side effects such as diarrhea and yeast infections.

There is, however, one cold myth that contains a grain of truth: Eat chicken soup. Maimonedes, a 12th-century rabbi and physician, recommended “soup from a fat hen,” and chicken soup has been a traditional cold remedy ever since. While it certainly feels good when you have a dry, ticklish throat, most believe that ‘Jewish penicillin’ has no special powers to cure a cold.

However, a recent scientific study found that “Chicken soup may provide relief from the symptoms of the cold through its synergistic properties” (in other words, the combination of ingredients and the fact that it’s a warm liquid). The study concluded that chicken soup helps the body clear mucus from the bronchial tubes faster and more effectively than other liquids. It does so because inhaling its warm vapors raises the temperature of the nose and loosens thickened secretions.

According to the researchers, the active ingredients in traditional recipes include celery, onions, carrots, parsley, mushrooms, parsnips, sage, thyme, salt and pepper. These are known for their medicinal and antioxidant properties.

In any case, staying well nourished can only help in the fight against your cold.

References and Other Resources

Colds and Flu: Time Only Sure Cure
Cold and Flu Guidelines: Myths and Facts
Common Cold
Cold (common cold)
Ask the Doctor: Cold Q&A
The Common Cold: Myths and Facts

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The Common Cold: Facts and Myths

Jane Collingwood

Jane Collingwood is a longtime regular contributing journalist to Psych Central, focusing on topics of mental health and dissecting recent research findings.

APA Reference
Collingwood, J. (2018). The Common Cold: Facts and Myths. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.