You cannot get a cold by being cold and you can’t cure a cold with antibiotics. These are just two of the misconceptions about the common cold that persist, despite efforts from the health care community to dispel them.

The great interest in the illness is understandable. In the U.S. alone, adults average two to three colds per year and children get even more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A survey by Merck Manuals found that 88 percent of Americans are confident when it comes to treating cold symptoms. However, the survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of the Manuals found that many Americans buy into age-old myths about the common cold that could affect their treatment.

Findings include:

  • One in four Americans (25 percent) believes it's possible to catch a cold by going outside in cold weather without a coat. But according to the Merck Manual, "Becoming chilled does not cause colds, nor does it increase a person's susceptibility to infection." Many different viruses can cause colds, and they spread "mainly when people's hands come in contact with nasal secretions from an infected person."
  • Just under half of Americans (49 percent) correctly identified that antibiotics are useless in treating colds. As the Manual states, "Antibiotics do not help people with colds, even when the nose or cough produces thick or colored mucus."
  • 28 percent believe that a bad cold can turn into the flu, when in reality the common cold and the flu are distinctly different and should be treated as such. "The flu is caused by a different virus and produces symptoms that are more severe," according to the Manual.

Misreading symptoms or failing to seek appropriate treatment can lead to serious health issues. The CDC says more than 200,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized each year for respiratory and heart conditions -- illnesses associated with seasonal influenza virus infections.

Yet many who exhibit symptoms of the flu may not seek medical care. Just a third of American adults (33 percent) say they would always go to the doctor if they were exhibiting symptoms of the flu. The remaining two-thirds indicated several reasons that would prevent them from seeing a doctor, such as:

  • I don't believe the doctor will be able to help me (30 percent)
  • It's too expensive (26 percent)
  • I don't have time to get to the doctor (18 percent)
  • I don't want to be exposed to more germs at the doctor's office (11 percent)

In a recent editorial on, Dr. Sanjay Sethi, expert in Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine said, "If you're feeling achy or have a fever and think you might have the flu, you should get to the doctor or urgent care center ASAP. Unlike a cold, there are drugs that treat the flu virus, which are most effective within the first 48 hours of the infection."

According to Dr. Sethi, who authors the sections on pneumonia for the Manuals, "When you first start experiencing symptoms, differentiating between a cold, the flu and pneumonia isn't always easy or straightforward. Fortunately, a health care professional can usually give you a better idea of what's going on. Pay close attention to your symptoms and don't wait to see a medical professional if you think it may be something beyond the sniffles."

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