Don’t Fall For These 5 Myths About Viruses and Your Immune System

Your immune system is on the job around the clock to protect you from infectious bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites that cause disease and suffering. The immune system is an extremely complex network of cells and molecules that researchers are still working to understand. Because there is still much about immune function that remains unknown, there are many prevailing myths that may influence your beliefs and actions.

The following are five common immune system myths that could be leading you astray.

Immune System Myth #1: Going outdoors in cold weather (or with wet hair) causes a cold.

Colds are more common during the winter seasons. However, the chilly weather isn’t to blame. Since this myth persists, the likely reason behind it is the rise in cases once the temperature drops in the United States.

Though viruses are more common during the colder seasons of the year, the consensus among physicians seems to be that this is caused by people staying indoors to avoid the cold – thus increasing the transmission of viruses between people – not by the cold itself.

Immune System Myth #2: The more active your immune system is, the healthier you will be.

Where the immune system is concerned, there can be too much of a good thing. A hyperactive immune response is responsible for allergic reactions to ordinary nontoxic substances. It also underlies several autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, IBS, and multiple sclerosis. 

In cases of immune system overactivity, it may begin producing antibodies that attack the body’s own tissue instead of fighting infection. Treatment for autoimmune diseases generally focuses on reducing immune system activity. On the flip side, immune deficiency diseases decrease the body’s ability to fight invaders, causing vulnerability to infections.

For maintaining everyday health and wellness, what we are aiming for is balance within the immune system, not too much, not too little.

Immune System Myth #3: “Feed a cold, starve a fever.” (Or “Starve a cold, feed a fever.”)

Regardless of which version of this common ‘old wives tale’ you’ve heard, they are both myths. You really shouldn’t do the extreme of either when you’re treating a cold or the flu. A short-term loss of appetite is a common symptom of viral illnesses. In this case, it’s not essential to force-feed yourself to promote recovery.

Instead, you should focus on drinking enough fluids. It’s very important to stay hydrated when you have an upper respiratory infection or a cold because sweating during sickness may contribute to dehydration. If you can eat, do so, since good nutrition will definitely help you recover faster. However, the top priority is to stay hydrated.

Immune System Myth #4: More is always better when it comes to taking vitamin C and other supplements to support the immune system.

Eating vitamin C-rich foods and taking supplements to boost your immune system can be beneficial for ongoing health. Yet there is always a risk of overdose with some supplements. For adults, the recommended upper limit is 2000 mg of vitamin C per day. For reference, just one packet of Emergen-C contains 1000 mg. Other supplements also have dosing recommendations, and it is important to stick to these or to what your healthcare provider recommends for you. The bottom line is that mega doses can be potentially harmful, so don’t overdo it. 

Immune System Myth #5: I had a runny nose for a few days, and the mucus has turned a really nasty color. Time for antibiotics!

In the past, green or yellow mucus was the justification for giving someone an antibiotic. As a result, antibiotics have been overused, and multiple strains of bacteria have developed resistance. Some of these are now ‘superbugs’ such as MRSA, which are very difficult to treat and may be life-threatening.

Instead of signaling the need to call in reinforcements, the color change can be a sign your immune system is doing its job. Often, when you start noticing the change in mucus, the end of your cold is approaching. If you are starting to feel better, this indicates no need for concern.

It’s the duration that really matters, not the color. If symptoms of heavy nasal drainage and cough are persistent beyond 10 to 14 days, without improvement, this may indicate a sinus infection. Additionally, anyone with chest pain or shortness of breath should be seen to make sure they do not have a more severe infection such as pneumonia.

Important Truths About The Immune System

Although some of the common beliefs about immunity and viruses are not true, that doesn’t mean you need to throw up your hands and accept whatever illness comes your way. There are many actions you can take to protect yourself from getting sick, or reduce the severity and duration of any bug you might catch.

For example, eating a nutritious diet, getting some exercise, sleeping enough, and taking action to relieve stress are all effective ways to build up a strong immune defense. A few healthy, common-sense practices can go a long way toward keeping you healthy and thriving.

-Liivi Hess

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