“Does Chicken Noodle Soup Really Help?” and Other Common Cold Myths

chicken noodle soup for a cold
chicken noodle soup for a cold
Need more soup” by Quinn Dombrowski available via CC BY-SA 2.0


This guest post on common cold myths was written by Diana Duong, who also writes at HealthSnap. Have something you want to share? Contact us or visit the Work With Us page to inquire about guest writing opportunities!


The temperature is dropping, and so are many of us, right back into bed. Coworkers are disappearing, one by one, and exam halls echo with the harmony of sniffles, nose-blowing, and hacking coughs along with pencil-scratching.

Along with the annual surge of viruses in the air and carol of the phlegm, we also hear a lot of old wives’ tales and tips. Is it all true, though? Let’s look into the evidence behind your loving mother’s advice.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.


Myth #1: Does chicken soup actually help a cold?

Whenever I hear a friend or family member is sick, my automatic reaction is to promise a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup. So automatic, you’d think I’d been brainwashed to do this. How did this come to be? Have the soup corporations conditioned us and our mothers to believe this?

An example of subtle product placement in Warhol’s paintings; Big Soup took control of many artists in the 1960s as a marketing attempt to turn soup into a household staple (just kidding).

In the journal CHEST (American College of Chest Physicians), researchers in fact found that chicken soup does have remedy properties. Using a “traditional” recipe, complete with onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery, parsley, and of course, chicken, the study found that the soup helped prevent inflammation. Only the vegetables seemed to have this effect though, the chicken did not have significant cell-killing properties.

Not every soup is the same

The study is thorough enough to note that their tested “traditional” chicken soup might not be the same as your mother’s or ones you’ll find on supermarket shelves, however. Sweet potato, for example, is not common in many chicken soup recipes. The tested soup, called “Grandma’s soup” also calls for the vegetables to be pureed and added to the soup.

Researchers noted, “we understand that this was a modification introduced by Grandma during the Great Depression to ensure that everyone ate the available vegetables.” Interesting.

Answer: Yes. But only if you make it the same way “Grandma” did in the 1930s.


Myth #2: Does cold weather cause a cold?

Runny noses, coughing, sneezing, and a headache: all symptoms of the common cold are caused by viruses, specifically: the rhinovirus. The flu is similar to a cold, but includes fatigue and a high fever and much more intense symptoms (and it’s even more intense if you’ve got the man flu), and is also caused by viruses.

So both winter woes are caused by the spread of viruses; when you breathe in air particles of a nearby infected person, or touch a contaminated object and carry it from your hands to your nose, mouth, or eyes.

But where is any mention that weather is a causal factor? If viruses cause colds, does being cold have anything to do with it?

Rhinos can come charging at you at 50 km/h but the rhinovirus can reach up to 165 km/h (hitchhiking onto your saliva/mucous in a sneeze).

Cold weather doesn’t directly make you sick, but there are a few factors that explain the spike of sick leaves during the winter months. The rhinovirus, carrier of the cold in your upper respiratory tract, thrives in low temperatures. Viruses travel faster and more easily in the dry, low-humid winter air than in high humidity as well.

Researchers hypothesize the cold constricts the blood vessels in your nose and upper airway, which prevents sufficient blood supply and white cells for an immune response, thus increasing susceptibility to infection.

There’s also the flood of everyone crowding indoors to escape from the cold. The close proximity is a longheld theory for the reason why there are more infections in the winter. Your cozy little chestnuts-roasting-by-the-open-fire plan with Phlegmy Phoebe is starting to look more like a rhinovirus-free-for-all now, isn’t it?

Answer: The cold weather doesn’t directly make you sick, but there are many factors that come with the cold weather that does.


Myth #3: You lose most of your body heat through your head

I always wondered about this as a kid, what else is a child to do after being screamed ‘where is your hat.. Do you want to die?!’ in front of all her friends? Question her mother’s authority and facts, of course. Turns out this myth holds about as much water as my dried-out winter scalp does.

Fifty per cent of my body heat is lost through the head? Have we not evolved to the point where we have sufficient insulation for our brains yet?

The fact is, heat loss and heat transfer occurs all over your skin, the rate of heat transfer correlates depends on your skin’s surface area to volume. The head especially shouldn’t fluctuate in temperature to protect the brain. As a spherical shape, the head is pretty minimal on the scale of surface area to volume ratio. This is in contrast to our hands and fingers, which become cold quickly.

The myth of losing body heat from our head more than anywhere else on the body stemmed from a US survival army guide, basing its evidence from vaguely scientific experiments in the 1950s. Volunteers were left in cold environments completely bundled up in Arctic survival suits, with the exception of their head. As the only exposed area of the body, most of their body heat was lost through their head, of course.

A report in the BMJ states that 7-10 per cent of total body heat is lost, which is fairly proportional for its shape, size, and compared to the rest of the body.

Answer: False.


What other winter medical myths have you heard and wondered about? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll try and look into it!

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