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Dr. Sonpal: Some cold hard facts, for real, that debunk our myths about winter and our health

There are endless winter health myths that we have heard from well-intentioned grandparents and parents. They have become so ingrained in us that we take them as cold hard facts. Many of these myths have no more basis in reality than Santa Claus.  Of course, everyone wants to stay as healthy as possible during the frosty months.

Board Certified NYC internist and gastroenterologist Dr. Niket Sonpal offers some advice on those health myths.
 
Myth: Allergies go away in the winter

Allergies might be the real source behind your stuffy nose and scratchy throat this season. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, one in five people suffer from indoor/outdoor allergies, and the indoor variety can actually be worse in the winter. Dr. Sonpal cautions that, “If your symptoms last longer than 10 days or ease up after taking an antihistamine, it might be time to visit an allergist.”

Myth: I wash my hands all the time with hand sanitizer, so I should be fine.

Hand sanitizer will kill most viruses, but not all. You must make sure you use the right amount of hand sanitizer and let it dry completely. Dr. Sonpal points out that, “Some viruses, like norovirus, which causes vomiting, is not killed by hand sanitizer. Soap and water are best to get rid of all bacteria and viruses, but the hand sanitizer is better than nothing at all.”

 

Myth: It’s cold out, I don’t need sunscreen.

The sun’s rays are just as strong in the winter months as they are in the other seasons. Snow and ice can reflect even more sunlight, up to twice as much. Grab the SPF 30 and put it on, regardless of the temperature. Don’t forget those sunglasses to keep your eyes safe as well.
 
Myth: I’ll just drink some alcohol to keep myself warm.

Although it may feel like drinking alcohol is making you warmer, it does not. Dr. Sonpal says that, “when you drink, the blood vessels dilate or get bigger, and blood flows to your skin and away from your internal organs. So, it may feel like you are getting warmer, but you are not.”
 
Myth: The Flu Shot Gives You the Flu

According to a new survey from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and Rite Aide, 44 percent of American women view the flu as a serious threat to their health. Yet nearly half (49 percent) do not intend to get a flu shot this year because they believe the vaccine can give them the flu. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the flu shot for anyone older than 6 months of age. Dr. Sonpal stresses that, “The shot does not contain a live virus, making catching the flu from it impossible.”
 
Myth: Winter weather makes you store fat and gain weight
Our bodies do not go into some kind of winter hibernation mode, stockpiling every ounce of fat to use for the lean times. It seems logical, like a throwback to our days living in caves foraging for food, but in reality, any weight gain comes from our winter habits. Dr. Sonpal points out that, “we tend to exercise less in winter. We eat more hearty meals and comfort foods, including more sugary snacks and desserts (especially around the holidays).”
 
Myth: You Lose Most Heat Through Your Head

The saying goes “we lose 90 percent of our body heat through our heads.”  But a 2006 study found that the head accounts for about 7 percent of the body’s surface area, and that heat loss in the region is fairly proportional, according to LiveScience. “Your head is another extremity, and it’s susceptible to cold, so you should wear a hat, but it doesn’t lose any more heat than another part of your body,” says Dr. Sonpal.
 
Myth: Chicken Soup Will Cure Colds
Many cultures teach us to drink warm liquids like tea, hot apple cider, and soups when we’re dealing with colds. It’s true that something like chicken soup may help soothe and ease congestion, but much like vitamin C, hot soup won’t do immediate wonders.
 
Myth: Being Cold Gives You a Cold

No matter what your grandma might have told you, spending too much time in the cold air doesn’t make you sick. One study found that healthy men who spent several hours in temperatures just above freezing had an increase in healthy, virus-fighting activity in their immune systems. In fact, you’re more likely to get sick indoors, where germs are easily passed.
 
Myth: Feed a cold, starve a fever

Dr. Sonpal says, “This is another myth that comes from a time when people didn’t understand the science of body chemistry. The thought was that if you had a cold, food would warm you up. Conversely, if you had a high fever, not eating would cool you down. This is just patently bad medical advice. In both cases, good nutrition gives your body the fuel it needs to fight infections and recover from an illness. When you have a fever, your body is burning energy at a rapid rate, and that needs to be replenished. So, by all means, feed your cold; but also feed your fever or any other illness. Even if you have stomach issues, find a way to take in lost fluids and electrolytes.”
 
Dr. Niket Sonpal is associate program director for the Internal Medicine Residency Program at Brookdale University Medical Center. He is a native of Long Island NY and a graduate of Medical University of Silesia – Hope Medical Institute in Poland. After completing his residency in Internal Medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, he was selected to be the 2013‐2014 Chief Resident at Lenox Hill Hospital–Northshore LIJ Health System. He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine and Clinical instructor at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, Brooklyn.

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