9 Cold and Flu Myths—Debunked

Misconceptions about cold and flu spread as quickly as the viruses that cause them. Be informed and separate fact from fiction, and you might just impress your pediatrician with how much you know at your child’s next doctor’s visit. Here, physicians weigh in with the truth.

Myth: The Flu is Harmless

“Influenza like colds is a respiratory viral infection, but flu is very different from a cold, and is also not what many people call the flu, which is when they get an intestinal problem,” says Michael Brady, MD, chairperson of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) committee on infectious diseases. “Influenza has a much greater likelihood of resulting in complications, such as with pneumonia in children.” It’s a serious illness: “More than a 100 children die each year from influenza,” he explains.


Myth: The Flu Vaccine Causes the Flu

Most of the influenza immunizations contain viruses that are inactive or “killed.” “We do have a live, attenuated strain we give to healthy people, and it won’t cause influenza or serious illness,” says Dr. Brady. But one of the problems in proving to the public that it’s a safe vaccine is that “when trying to vaccinate more than 135,000,000 people, things are going to happen that have nothing to do with the vaccine.” For example, “Many people end up with a cold due to a different virus, but don’t get influenza,” explains Dr. Brady. “When you have influenza, it’s definitely different than a cold. With influenza, you will get a 102- or 103-degree fever.” It’s a significant respiratory tract infection with cough and muscle aches, he says, adding, “It’s more than having a stuffy nose and scratchy throat, and not feeling good.”

Myth: Flu Needs to Run Its Course & No Meds Are Needed

For the most part, if a child is doing well, doesn’t require hospital care and isn’t at risk for complications, then a child with the flu can be cared for at home. “If a child has fever or muscle aches or malaise, ibuprofen or acetaminophen would be appropriate. Aspirin should be avoided,” says Dr. Brady, adding that a child with the flu needs to receive fluids to stay well hydrated.

He explains: “The big issue for parents is to monitor how the child is doing. If breathing becomes labored, if the child won’t take in enough liquids, or if the child develops a new fever after the fever has been resolved for a day or more, the child needs to be evaluated for one of the complications of influenza.”

When your child has the flu, it’s always important to contact your primary care provider for advice from the start. He can determine if an antiviral medication is needed, says Dr. Brady, and a baby as young as 2 weeks of age can receive it. “Oseltamavir (Tamiflu) is the only antiviral medication to treat influenza that is approved below age 5 years,” he explains. “It provides better results when given early in the course of the illness, i.e. less than 48 hours of symptoms.”

Myth: Once a Child Receives the Flu Vaccine, He Can’t Get the Flu

“The influenza vaccine is good but not perfect. Most years, the ‘vaccine effectiveness’ of the vaccine is about 50 to 70 percent … however, on a population basis, since there are millions of cases of influenza each year, there are millions of cases prevented,” says Dr. Brady, adding that the “vaccine contains 3 or 4 different influenza strains. The choice of the strains is based on the best prediction by the World Health Organization as to which strains will be circulating in the next influenza season. Sometimes the predictions and the circulating strains don’t match.”

Myth: Once the New Year Rolls Around, It’s Too Late to Get the Flu Vaccine

“Influenza season can start as early as late October and last into as late as May. The vaccine needs to be given before influenza season starts, preferably a few weeks before. So we recommend children getting their influenza vaccine as soon as their provider can make it available,” explains Dr. Brady. “The vaccine is recommended to be given up to as late as early May. If the influenza season is late, later administration of the vaccine can still protect. Since some locations have two or three strains of influenza circulating and usually sequentially, it is appropriate to give a seasonal influenza vaccine even if influenza has already hit the community.  Another strain might be right around the corner,” he notes.

Myth: Kids Can Catch Colds When Not Dressed Warmly Outdoors

“When it’s cold outside, there are more flu and cold viruses circulating, but going outside won’t make you sick,” says Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, associate medical editor of the AAP’s book Caring for Your Baby and young Child: Birth to Age 5.  “You have to be in contact with viruses or someone who is sick.” She adds: “Certain viruses thrive in certain weather conditions or climates. Flu thrives when it’s cold out and in middle of winter, and when there is a warmer winter, the flu starts later.”

Myth: Don’t Give a Child Dairy When He’s Sick with a Cold

“I rarely take kids off of dairy when they’re sick. There is no research to show that it is dangerous or increases phlegm and we want them to get back to normal as soon as possible, and kids drink and eat a lot of dairy normal,” says Dr. Altmann. It’s most important that they get fluid, she explains, so “give them whatever they want to feel better, and dairy has a lot of nutrition.” But when they’re sick, kids should be given small amounts of fluid frequently – an ounce every 15 minutes, she says.

Myth: Kids Are Only Contagious When They Show Symptoms

“Children are definitely contagious day or two before they show symptoms,” says Dr. LoFrumento. In fact, when Dr. Altmann has a big family trip or event coming up, she doesn’t bring her kids to public play areas to prevent them from getting sick. “During winter, when children are around a group of kids, they will get sick within two days,” notes Dr. Altmann.

Myth: Chicken Soup Can Cure a Cold

“Some people feel there is some truth to it, but no one has every proved it in a double blind study,” says Dr. LoFrumento. “There is no doubt that chicken soup helps us feel better, and it’s a way to get fluids into kids.” It provides salt, protein, and fluid, and helps open airways, but “whether it truly does something to the immune system up for debate,” she adds.