With flu season in full swing and the spread of the novel coronavirus to worry about, a lot of us are focused on how to stay healthy. From slurping up soup to bathing in hand sanitizer, you've probably read about a million different ways to avoid getting sick. But which prevention strategies actually work?
Below, medical experts separate fact from fiction to help set straight some of the most common germ myths.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
1. Myth: Face Masks Are Your Best Defense Against Catching a Virus
Despite much research, the effectiveness of healthy people wearing face masks to prevent catching influenza and other infections (like the novel coronavirus) is still under debate.
"There is no conclusive evidence that the use of face masks protects healthy people in their day-to-day lives," Pauline Jose, MD, a clinical instructor at UCLA and family medicine specialist at pH Labs, a national nonprofit health information organization, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Until recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not recommend that people in good health wear a face mask to prevent contracting respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.
That's in part because germs are teensy and can easily sneak past a mask, especially if it's loose-fitting or not worn correctly.
"Keep in mind how small a virus actually is," says Denise Pate, MD, board-certified internal medicine physician at Medical Offices of Manhattan. "The typical length of a virus ranges from 200 to 1,000 nanometers (for reference, a red blood cell is about 10,000 nanometers), and many of the masks on the market — which are commonly used improperly — can't prevent something so small from entering our bodies."
However, the CDC recently changed its position on wearing face masks during the novel coronavirus pandemic, encouraging everyone to wear a cloth face covering when in public. This recommendation is meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 after new research found it's possible to spread the virus even when you're not showing symptoms. In other words, the cloth face cover is meant to protect other people in case you are infected.
It's important to note that the CDC does not recommend wearing face masks meant for health care workers, such as surgical masks or N-95 respirators. Instead, it encourages making your own mask from household materials like a bandana, scarf or T-shirt.
In addition to mask-wearing, there are several other best practices people should follow when in public to help stem the spread of the virus.
"The best defensive strategy is proper hand-washing, mindful covering of your mouth upon coughing and sneezing and not touching your eyes, nose and mouth," Dr. Pate says.
2. Myth: Wearing Gloves Can Prevent You From Picking Up Germs
Hate to break it to you, but wearing gloves — whether winter gloves or the surgical kind — isn't the best way to avoid germs.
Gloves are like a second skin — they pick up the same pathogens your bare hands do. Subsequently, they can also transmit — and infect you with — harmful bugs if you touch an unclean surface and then touch your face, according to Flushing Hospital Medical Center.
In other words, for gloves to serve any protective function at all, you would have to wash (or change) them as regularly as you would your ungloved hands — which pretty much defeats the purpose of wearing them.
However, if you're caring for someone with an illness like COVID-19, the CDC recommends you don disposable gloves when coming into contact with the person's blood, stool or body fluids (including saliva, sputum, nasal mucus, vomit and urine). This also goes for when you clean "high-touch" surfaces, such as counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones and keyboards, and when handling soiled clothing and bedding for laundry.
In these cases, always avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with gloved hands. Then dispose of them immediately (only use them once!) and wash your hands straightaway with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, per the CDC.
3. Myth: Vitamin C Can Cure a Cold
When you're under the weather, you might reach for a tall glass of orange juice. But does a little vitamin C do the trick when you're sick?
"Vitamin C is important for immune defense, and we need a good immune function for healing," Dr. Jose says. That said, research has found that taking daily vitamin C supplements only modestly reduces a cold's duration, by about 8 percent, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Vitamin C's ability to slightly shorten the length of a cold (and reduce the severity of your symptoms) may be in part because "it compensates for the increased inflammatory response and metabolic demand," explains Dr. Jose.
But if you just start popping vitamin C once you're already sick, it won't do much to speed your recovery, says the NIH.
At the end of the day, "the best remedy is good old-fashioned sleep," Dr. Pate says. The more your body rests, the speedier your recovery.
4. Myth: The Flu Is the Same as Having a Bad Cold
Though you may experience typical cold symptoms like sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, hoarseness and cough, the flu can be more dangerous than your run-of-the-mill common cold. "In the United States alone, 36,000 people die and more than 200,000 are hospitalized each year because of the flu," Dr. Pate says.
And certain populations are at greater risk, including infants, the elderly, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems, per the CDC. What's more, if you suffer from a medical condition, such as heart disease, cancer or diabetes, the flu can lead to more serious complications.
For this reason, Dr. Pate encourages people to get vaccinated. "Even if the shot doesn't prevent you from getting the flu, it can decrease the chance of developing severe symptoms," she says.
5. Myth: Healthy People Don't Need the Flu Vaccine
As mentioned above, certain groups have a higher risk for encountering flu-related complications, but "anyone is susceptible to contracting the flu, including healthy people," says Dr. Pate, adding that once infected, individuals can become contagious and spread the virus to others. That's why the CDC recommends that everyone (starting at 6 months of age) get vaccinated every flu season.
And getting the flu shot every year is key. "The influenza virus mutates, so getting vaccinated each year is important to make sure you have immunity to the strains most likely to cause an outbreak," Dr. Pate says.
6. Myth: You Need Antibiotics for the Flu
"False, false, and false," Dr. Pate says about this belief. Antibiotics are specifically made to kill bacteria, not viruses like the flu or the novel coronavirus, which are completely different organisms.
"Supportive therapy, antiviral medications (not all viruses have medications) and preventative vaccines are the proper approach for treating viruses," she says.
However, "sometimes a patient's immune function gets so challenged during a viral infection that they develop a superimposed bacterial infection like pneumonia," Dr. Jose says. In these cases, taking an antibiotic may be beneficial.
7. Myth: You Should 'Starve' a Fever
This is fiction. Though eating may be the last thing on your mind when you're under the weather, forgoing food may not be your best bet for a speedy healing process, Dr. Jose says.
Whether it's the cold or flu, "your immune system needs nutrients and energy to do its job, so eating and getting enough fluids is essential," Dr. Pate says.
Hydration is key for recovery. So if you can't choke down solids, try sipping on water, tea and broth.
8. Myth: The Flu Vaccine Causes the Flu
If you've ever gotten hit with the flu soon after receiving the flu shot, you might've assumed that the vaccine itself made you ill. But this simply isn't true. "The flu shot is made from an inactivated virus that can't transmit infection," Dr. Pate says.
In fact, it takes a week or two for the vaccine's protection to kick in, so people who become symptomatic immediately after getting a flu shot were already on their way to getting sick before they got vaccinated, Dr. Pate explains.
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Influenza (Flu) Vaccine (Inactivated or Recombinant): What You Need to Know.”
- JAMA: “Medical Masks.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Prevention & Treatment.”
- Flushing Hospital Medical Center: “How Can Wearing Gloves Get You Sick?”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Preventing the Spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 in Homes and Residential Communities.”
- National Institutes of Health: “Vitamin C: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals.”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Use of Cloth Face Coverings to Help Slow the Spread of COVID-19"