How These 10 Winter Health Myths May Be Harming You

Winter is here. Accompanying the cold, the rain, and the snow are a whole bunch of old wives tales that range from slightly inaccurate to downright dangerous. We generally believe these pieces of advice because they were passed down to us by parents, grandparents, and friends. But the truth is, most of these myths come from a misunderstanding of science, or a time when people just didn't know any better. Here are 10 of the biggest winter health myths — debunked.

1. You don't need to apply sunscreen

Wrong. Oh, so very wrong. When people feel the drop in temperature (which can be dramatic in some states), they think that the cold weather eliminates the need for UV protection. This is just untrue. "The sun's harmful rays are just as strong and damaging despite what your thermometer says — particularly the UVA rays which are responsible for aging skin," said Bruce E. Katz, the director of JUVA Skin and Laser Center in New York.

Now, with the winter months, you may be actively covering up a lot of your skin anyway with thick clothing, gloves, and scarves, but your face will still be exposed to harmful UV rays, and all it takes is one bad sunburn to increase your risk of getting skin cancer. And if you plan on going skiing, remember that the snow reflects up to 80 percent of the sun's rays right back at you, so use a good sunscreen and sunglasses.

2. Flu shots actually give you the flu

No, they don't. That's like saying a tetanus shot will give you tetanus, or a polio vaccine will give you polio. When you are injected with the flu vaccine, your body is introduced to an inactivated form of the flu virus. For all intents and purposes, it's dead (or at least in a deep coma). But your immune system learns to recognize the enemy virus, and produces antibodies to break it down and destroy it. When an active version of the flu virus enters your system, it recognizes it immediately and gets to work fighting it, destroying the antigens before they can do any harm. (See also: The High Cost of Catching a Cold or the Flu)

3. Cold weather makes you sick

For hundreds of years, parents and grandparents have told their little ones to bundle up and avoid going outside because it'll increase the chances of catching a cold, or becoming ill. This is pure fiction. The cold weather cannot make you sick in that way, unless you are trapped outside and develop hypothermia. In fact, when you venture out into the cold, the cells that fight infection in your body actually increase. And what's more, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cold viruses thrive at a temperature of 91 degrees.

So, why do people think the cold weather brings colds and sickness? Well, there could be several reasons. One theory is that during the winter months, you spend way more time indoors, and heating systems make it easier for viruses to enter your dry nasal passages. What's more, you're spending way more time locked up inside with other people. If one of them gets sick, the chance of that disease spreading is greater than during the summer months. But the cold weather itself is not going to give you a cold or the flu.

4. You lose most of your body heat through your head

Military researchers in 1950s conducted studies that exposed subjects to frigid temperatures. Their heads were uncovered, and their bodies were bundled up nice and warm in cold-resistant clothing. These studies probably led to the U.S. Army Field Guide stating that 40-45 percent of heat being lost was through the head. Well yeah, because it's the only part of the body that was exposed during these experiments.

A 2006 study repeated the test, but did it with test subjects in wet suits in cold water. Sometimes they would fully submerge their heads, other times the head was left out of the water. The result was that heat loss through the head is proportionate to the rest of the body. So, yes, you should cover your head to keep warm. But you are not going to lose half your body heat if you don't wear a hat.

5. Huge amounts of vitamin C will prevent or cure a cold

During the winter months, the aisles in the supermarket are stocked with vitamin C boosters and supplements; some offering over 1,600 percent of the daily amount you are supposed to take. Can this massive intake of vitamin C really prevent a cold from forming? Or, can it kill a cold in its tracks? The answer from researchers and scientists is … probably not.

Vitamin C has been touted for decades as an essential supplement for health and vitality, and there is no doubt that vitamin C does the body good. It can have a kind of antihistamine effect, and a 2005 study from the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that it can reduce the frequency of catching a cold, but realistically, bingeing on vitamin C is not going to do much for you, other than having a placebo effect.

6. 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. 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). We drink more coffee, hot chocolate, and tea, and some of those $6 beverages from Starbucks are loaded with high-calorie sweet syrups. Your body doesn't turn into some kind of fat-storing machine, though. We're not bears. (See also: 36 Workouts You Can Do in Your Living Room While It's Cold Out)

7. Alcohol will warm you up

My parents were guilty of believing this little myth. They would put a capful of whiskey in their tea or coffee, saying it would help them stay warm before going out in the cold. The effects of the alcohol may be tricking your body into feeling warmer, but it's not really happening. As the MythBusters proved, alcohol actually lowers your body's core temperature. The heat you think you're feeling comes from the alcohol causing your blood vessels to dilate, moving warm blood closer to the skin, and creating that flushed feeling.

8. Feed a cold, starve a fever

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.

9. Allergies disappear in winter

Tell that to all the people sneezing and itching at home right now. While summer allergies like hay fever may be gone, you are still going to suffer from allergies that thrive indoors. That includes mold and dust, fabric fibers, animal dander, mites, and even dead insect particles. And as you're spending more time indoors during the cold months, your body is bombarded with these allergens. One of the best ways to combat indoor allergies is by installing a furnace filter that traps them so they are not recirculated through your home. You may also want to invest in a UV light air purifier, and of course, stock up on antihistamines. (See also: 10 Cheap Ways to Improve the Air Quality in Your Home)

10. Going outside with wet hair makes you sick

This is just another myth that stems from cold weather increasing the chance of illness. Your head will certainly feel colder if you go out into the frigid air when it's wet, but you're not going to catch a cold, or the flu, by stepping outside after you just got out of the shower. Of course, you should probably dry it first because you are not going to feel comfortable with a head full of cold, wet hair. And if it's really cold, a hat is a good idea to stop any body heat from escaping. You will only catch a cold if there is a virus going around.

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How These 10 Winter Health Myths May Be Harming You

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