Can you 'catch a chill'? Winter myths and expert advice

It may be a memory of our mum telling us we'll 'catch our death' if we venture outside without a coat. Perhaps a well-meaning relative has advised us to choke down chicken soup when we're suffering from a winter virus. Whatever the advice, we've all heard a few 'winter health myths' - but is there truth in any of them? And what age-old advice might keep us healthier this winter?

Can cold weather give you a cold?

We all associate the winter with having more colds - and for good reason. But is it the cold weather that triggers these uncomfortable winter viruses? "The cold can't actually give you a cold," says GP Dr Ed Pooley, "but when it's cold, people tend to cluster together indoors, so there's an association in winter months and increased risk of viral illness."

In addition, says Dr Sarah Jarvis, Clinical Director of Patient.info, cold weather may reduce the effectiveness of our first line of defence - our nostrils. "Lots of viruses are trapped in the mucus in your nose. The mucus is wafted out by tiny hairs called cilia, preventing the viruses from penetrating any deeper. Cold weather makes the beating movements of the cilia less efficient and they stop beating entirely below 4°C.

In addition, if the lining of your nose is cold, blood vessels constrict, possibly reducing the ability of white cells from our immune system to reach the nose and wipe out the viruses."

The obvious solution, she suggests, is to cover your nose with a scarf (or face covering) when out in cold air.

Should we really starve a fever?

Should we really starve a fever and feed a cold? "This is another myth," says Pooley. "Medically speaking, you should be eating nutritious, healthy food to prevent illness or improve recovery time. The only time where this might have some worth is if you have gastroenteritis or a viral infection in your gut. In that case, changing what you eat might be helpful - reducing your intake of foods containing lactose and spicy foods may reduce irritation."

Do we lose heat from our head?

You may have heard that 50% of your body heat is lost through your head. In actual fact, the number is more like 7-10%. Still, it's worth popping on a winter hat in any case. "Your body works hard to keep the brain warm, so you do lose some heat from your head," says Pooley. "Also, if you're in a sunny place, despite the cold you may need to wear a hat to protect your head from sun damage - for example, if you're skiing."

Will going out without shoes make us ill?

If we're dashing into the garden to get the washing, or standing on the front step to wave goodbye to visitors, will stepping outside without our shoes make us ill? "Generally speaking it's not advisable to go out in the cold without shoes on," says Pooley. "If your feet are cold you're going to reduce blood supply and increase risk of illness, especially if you suffer from diabetes or poor circulation. But nipping outside barefoot to grab something quickly won't make a difference to most people."

Are we immune after a cold?

Once you've had a cold, you won't catch it again – right? "Sadly that's false. The resistance you develop to a cold only lasts for a transient amount of time," says Pooley. "Plus cold viruses mutate so quickly it's hard to develop any sort of immunity. However, if you've had a period of time when you haven't been exposed to any cold viruses, you may be even more prone."

Can chicken soup speed recovery?

Myths abound around this nutritious dish, but can chicken soup really help us to get better more quickly? "Chicken soup may be helpful, but only because it's nutritious with vitamins, minerals and protein and a good way of getting extra fluid into the body. There's nothing special about it per se," says Pooley.

"It's important to relieve dehydration, which can thicken mucus and make us feel more unwell. So taking plenty of fluids is a good idea. And you can include chicken soup among these if you wish - after all, it tastes nice and may have a psychological benefit."

Should we avoid exercise when sick?

Is it a good idea to skip exercise when we're under the weather? "In some cases, it's a good idea, but in others staying active won't make much difference," says Pooley. "For instance, if you're mildly unwell with an upper respiratory tract infection, a bit of exercise to reduce aches and keep your blood pumping could give you a boost. But I wouldn't recommend pushing your body too hard.

"If you're more seriously ill, you probably won't feel able to exercise anyway."

Can the flu jab give you flu?

Rumours about the flu jab giving us a flu-like illness can be off-putting. But is it really possible that having this injection can give us a dose of the bad stuff? Categorically not.

"The adult flu vaccine doesn't contain any live virus," says Dr Jarvis. “That means there is no way it can trigger flu in you. Virus infections happen when viruses multiply inside your cells - and dead viruses can't breed.

"There are two main reasons this myth has come about. As your body adjusts to the vaccine, it is creating antibodies to an illness you haven't had. Some people may experience a few aches and pains or a headache, and may associate this feeling with the flu, but it's impossible for the jab to give you the illness itself.

"In addition, we give the flu vaccine at the time of year when lots of people are coming down with colds. So if you have the vaccine when you're brewing a cold, you may develop symptoms a few days later and blame the vaccine."

Should we up our vitamin C?

Whether it's munching on clementines or crunching on tablets, vitamin C has long been associated with giving our immune system a boost. But is it a good idea to up our intake in the winter months? "Vitamin C is good for general immune function and heath," says Pooley. "Taking it as part of a multivitamin tablet or a one-a-day dose can be helpful. But taking a high dose for a long time isn't going to do much. Taking too much just means you'll be peeing out any excess."

Of course, NHS advice is that most people don't need vitamin supplements (apart from vitamin D) as long as they have a healthy diet. You're better off topping up your vitamin D with citrus fruit and vegetables, which will provide fibre and other micronutrients as well.

It's important to look after our health, particularly during wintertime when cold viruses tend to be more prevalent. This means wrapping up, eating a nutritious diet and generally adopting a healthy lifestyle. But paying attention to winter myths probably won't make much difference at all.

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