Family Health: The truth about cold-weather myths

Here’s a true-or-false quiz to test your savvy about traditional health lore:

You lose most of your heat through your head: T or F.
Coffee stunts children’s growth: T or F.
Drinking milk can make you produce more mucus: T or F.

These statements, which are all false, have been around so long you can be excused for believing them – it’s hard to let go of advice your mother gave you. And while they’re not true, they are mostly harmless.


That’s not the case with some other health myths, especially those that come up during winter when cold or stormy weather raises the stakes. Here are some dangerous myths that keep making the rounds, along with information that can help keep you well.



Myth: If someone seems hypothermic, a shot of brandy or other alcohol can warm them up.

Fact: Do not give an alcoholic beverage to someone with hypothermia. Alcohol may feel like it warms you, but that’s because it dilates the blood vessels near your skin. The warm feeling is heat moving out of your body, making the core of your body colder.

People with hypothermia may show signs such as confusion, slurred speech, sleepiness, extreme shivering or no shivering in a cold person, or poor control over body movements. If you think someone has hypothermia, take the person to a hospital or call for help. Severe hypothermia can lead to death if it’s not treated.

While you’re waiting for help, or if medical care isn’t available, take off the person’s wet clothing. Then wrap him or her in blankets, towels, coats or a sleeping bag. If you are relatively warm, you can help by getting skin-to-skin with the hypothermic person under loose, dry layers of blankets. An electric blanket can also help, but watch for folded areas that can get too hot. If the person is conscious, give him or her something warm to drink – warm water is fine.



Myth: A good treatment for frostbite is to rub the affected part in snow.

Fact: Rubbing a frostbitten area with snow, or with anything else, can only make it worse. Frostbite damages the tissues and rubbing or massaging them will increase the injury. In fact, people with frostbitten feet should be carried, if possible, to avoid further damage from walking.


Frostbite happens when a body area freezes – usually the nose, fingers, toes, cheeks, chin or ears. Frostbitten areas may be numb, white or gray. Deeper frostbite can cause bliste

rs and swelling, and the area can feel cold and hard.

Treat frostbite by warming the area with warm – not hot – water. It that’s not available, some frostbitten parts can be warmed in an armpit or against a belly. Don’t warm the frostbitten area in front of a fire or with a heating pad, since numbness can keep the person from feeling a burn developing.

People with severe frostbite should see a doctor, since they are at risk for infection. Most frostbite improves slowly over several months, though the area may remain numb or be extra sensitive to cold.


Myth: You don’t need sunscreen in the winter, since the sun is farther away.

Fact: First, the sun is actually closer in winter. Our winters are cold because the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun during those months, so its ultraviolet rays hit us at an angle. But while these shallow rays bring less heat, they can still burn your skin. Snow raises the sunburn risks, since it reflects up to 80 percent of the UV light. UV rays are also stronger at higher elevations.

All this means that sunscreen is essential all year. You’ll probably have less exposed skin to cover in the winter, but be sure to use plenty of SPF 30 or higher sunscreen on those parts. Apply it 30 minutes before you go outside, and again every two hours. Also use a lip balm that’s at least 15 SPF.

You should also wear sunglasses, or goggles if you’re on the slopes, with 99 percent or greater UV protection. Wraparound lenses are best.


Myth: Going out in the cold can cause you to catch a cold.

Fact: Cold weather doesn’t cause colds, even if you don’t wear your hat. Colds are more common in winter because people are more likely to be indoors, around other people with a cold virus.

The best way to avoid getting a cold is to wash your hands frequently. Also, stay away from people who are already sick. The same goes for avoiding the flu, and you should also get your annual flu shot.


As for those entertaining myths from childhood, here’s the scoop:

Hats and body heat: In cold weather you lose heat through any uncovered body part. Your head isn’t special – but you should still wear a hat.
Kids and coffee: Studies have shown that coffee has no effect on growth. However, the caffeine in coffee can interfere with kids’ sleep, which helps people of any age stay healthy, learn and remember information and maintain a positive mood. Since children and teenagers need even more sleep than adults, it’s a good idea to limit their caffeine intake, especially before bedtime.
Mucous and milk: While drinking milk may make the phlegm in your mouth and throat seem thicker, it doesn’t cause your body to produce more of this substance.

If you’re wondering about other health lore that might be myth, ask your best source of health information – your family doctor.