Debunking myths: Learn how to prevent and treat the common cold

December 21, 2021

This article was reviewed by our Baystate Health team to ensure medical accuracy.

Jeffrey Lawrence Hammond, CNP Jeffrey Lawrence Hammond, CNP View Profile
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If it seems like there are more people with runny noses, coughs and other cold symptoms during the winter, you’re not imagining things.

Baystate Health nurse practitioner Jeffrey Hammond of Baystate Primary Care - Longmeadow explains that viruses (like cold and flu viruses) spread more quickly indoors.

Hammond debunks some common cold myths.

Can you catch a cold by going outside without a coat on?

Truth: Being cold doesn’t make you catch a cold. So, wearing a coat doesn’t protect you from the virus.

You may notice more people getting sick during the winter months, but that’s likely because people are spending more time indoors. Being close together like that makes it easier for viruses to spread.

Can Vitamin C can cure a cold?

Truth: There is no cure for the common cold. Taking Vitamin C supplements can boost your immune system if you’re Vitamin C deficient, but it can’t get rid of your cold.

Will antibiotics cure a cold?

Truth: Antibiotics don’t work against viruses, so they can’t get rid of your cold.

Does drinking milk make a cold worse?

Truth: There’s no evidence drinking milk increases your body’s mucus production while you have a cold. So, drinking milk is fine.

Should you “feed a cold, starve a fever?”

Truth: Don’t starve either! Your body needs the nutrients from a healthy diet. Make sure to drink lots of water to keep hydrated.

What causes the common cold?

The common cold is caused by a virus, which then causes inflammation in the nose and throat.

It usually enters your body through your nose, mouth or eyes.

What are the symptoms of a cold?

If you have a cold, you may get these symptoms:

  • sore throat
  • runny nose
  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • headaches
  • body aches

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says you’ll likely experience a sore throat and runny nose first.

How to tell the difference between the common cold, the flu, and COVID

When you’re sick, it can sometimes be difficult to tell exactly what you have.

Cold and flu symptoms can be very similar, making it sometimes impossible to tell them apart.

The CDC says flu symptoms are generally more severe and start more abruptly. With a cold, you’re more likely to get a runny or stuffy nose.

It can also be easy to mistake the common cold for COVID-19. While some of the symptoms overlap, COVID is more likely to show more severe and varied symptoms than a cold. There is also more risk for complications.

Compare Flu and COVID symptoms.

Prevention tips: How to stay healthy

Getting through the day with a runny nose, congestion, a sore throat or other cold symptoms can be miserable and exhausting. Consider these tips from Hammond and protect yourself from getting sick.

  1. Wash your hands regularly and avoid touching your face until you do. Our skin is the best defense against illness, Hammond says. Viruses and bacteria enter our body through areas such as our eyes, mouths, and nose. Learn the right way to wash your hands.
  2. Stay active and exercise. When it’s freezing out and there’s less daylight, it’s tempting to just curl up on the couch with a big fleecy blanket. However, exercise keeps our body more resistant to illness and disease.
  3. Sleep. The body is much more prone to illness if we do not get enough sleep on a nightly basis. This is more important than many people realize, Hammond says. Eight hours a night is recommended.
  4. Take your vitamins. A once-daily-vitamin is a safe option that can help maximize our own immune system. Hammond says for children, parents should ask their pediatrician before giving their child vitamins.
  5. Keep your distance from people who are sick. Sicknesses like the cold are easily spread if you’re close to people. Let sick people recover fully before spending time with them in person.

How to stop the spread

The CDC says you should stay home if you’re sick and hold off on too much physical contact with others. That means putting hugs, kisses, and handshakes on hold.

If you do have to be around people while you’re sick, make sure you move away to cough or sneeze. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or the inside of your elbow – instead of letting the germs fly.

Don’t forget to clean up after yourself by washing your hands and cleaning nearby surfaces.


There’s no cure or vaccine for the cold.

But there are some things you can do to feel better:

  1. Drink more water. The body uses significantly more water in all the metabolic processes when combating an illness – even the common cold. Aim for a minimum of 64 ounces of water each day.
  2. Rest. Give your body plenty of time to recover.
  3. Eat a balanced diet. Choose from a broad spectrum of foods to ensure you get enough quality nutrition.
  4. Manage your symptoms safely.
  5. Have a bowl of chicken soup. Studies show chicken soup is a good cold remedy. It breaks up congestion and offers balanced nutrition with protein, vegetables, and carbohydrates (usually noodles or rice). The sodium in the broth helps retain more fluids.

Should you take medicine to get rid of a cold?

Taking medicine won’t make your cold go away, but it could treat some of the symptoms.

Doctors recommend options including acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and guaifenesin (the active ingredient in Mucinex). Follow labeled instructions.

For children, use single-ingredient medicines specifically labeled for children, Hammond says. We tend not to recommend multi-ingredient cold/flu/sinus remedies for children since they often contain partial adult doses of medicine (325mg acetaminophen instead of 650mg) or aspirin, which we do not recommend treating cold symptoms anymore.

Do not take antibiotics for a cold, since this type of medication cannot treat respiratory viruses like colds.

Talk with your primary care provider if you have questions.

How long does a cold last?

Colds typically last 7-10 days.

But a cold can develop into a serious illness like pneumonia for people with weakened immune systems, asthma, or respiratory conditions.


At what point should someone with a cold see a primary care provider?

Call your primary care provider if you have:
  • A fever above 101 degrees that remains high despite taking acetaminophen, ibuprofen or another fever-reducing medicine
  •  Episodes of vomiting and/or diarrhea and cannot keep fluids down
  • Symptoms that begin to significantly worsen after the first 2-3 days of illness
  • Symptoms last more than 10 days

The CDC says people who are at high risk for serious flu complications – whose cold start to show signs of flu – should call their doctor right away.

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