Vaccines, Sunscreen and Soup: Five Winter Medical Myths Debunked

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As a doctor, I’m always amazed by the amount of health information available at our fingertips. It’s possible to pull out my phone on rounds and search the medical literature to find answers to my most pressing questions in real time. The accessibility of information and the speed with which we can have it is astounding. But, here’s the catchfor every piece of helpful information, there is at least one misconception floating in cyberspace. So I’ve sorted through some of the most common winter health misconceptions to make you healthier, happier and wiser
this season.

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MYTH: Flu Vaccines Can Cause the Flu.
The influenza vaccine is made by using proteins from an already killed group of flu viruses, the ones that scientists believe are most likely to be troublesome each season. These proteins are injected and trigger your immune system to make a response. Once your immune system meets the flu proteins later in the season, it will “remember” them and attack accordingly. Because the virus is already dead when it finds its way into the vaccine, it can’t give you influenza…but it will protect you.

MYTH: You Don’t Need Sunscreen in Winter.
Just because it gets dark in the middle of the afternoon doesn’t mean you can ditch your SPF! Earth is actually closest to the sun at this time of year, and the ozone layer is at its thinnest. When you add in the fact that UV rays can penetrate glass and that snow can intensify exposure to UV, it’s important to keep protecting your skin all year long.

MYTH: Being Out in the Cold Can Make You Sick.
Sorry to all the moms who just want their kids to bundle up—it turns out that this one is an old wives’ tale. In fact, bacteria and viruses are actually less likely to grow in cold temperatures. Exposure to bacteria and viruses are what make us sick. Feeling cold just makes us uncomfortable.

MYTH: Antibiotics Cure Most Winter Ailments.
When your doctor refuses your request for antibiotics (again), don’t get mad! Antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections, like sinusitis, pneumonia, and strep throat, and most of us get sick with viruses during the winter months. Antibiotics are designed to kill bacteria by taking away their ability to make more of themselves.

Unfortunately, these medications just don’t work the same way for viruses, because viruses live inside our cells and use our own cells to make more of themselves. Yes, viruses can make you miserable—lingering cough, fever, post-nasal drip, the list goes on. But taking antibiotics when you don’t really need them can also cause misery, like diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain and, worse, the risk of creating resistant bacteria that can’t be killed with the usual antibiotics.

MYTH/TRUTH: Chicken Soup Can’t Cure a Cold.
This one might not be all myth. It turns out your Bubbe was probably right (obviously)—chicken soup might help to cure (or at least soothe) what ails you. Some studies show chicken soup helps to inhibit the movement of certain white blood cells that increase the symptoms of respiratory viral infections, and chicken soup appears to be better than hot water for moving nasal mucus and improving your ability to breathe from your nose. Of course, none of these studies are conclusive; there is no hard and fast proof that chicken soup is a miracle cure, but it will probably make you feel better.

Dr. Rina Meyer is a board-certified pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Stony Brook Children’s and Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the views of Stony Brook University School of Medicine or Stony Brook Children’s Hospital.

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