Drs. Oz & Roizen: The Truth Behind Medical Myths

Q: Can you get the flu from a flu shot?

A: No. If you come down with the flu after a flu shot, it’s because the shot didn’t protect you against that flu strain or you were exposed to the virus before your body developed antibodies, a process that takes about two weeks from the time of the shot.

Here’s Flu Shot 101: The standard vaccine provides a small amount of weakened live flu virus in a nasal spray (which works best on kids and is approved for healthy people ages 2 through 49) or the dead virus via a shot (for everyone 6 months and older and pregnant women). The vaccine is too mild to cause the flu, but it will trigger your body to mount a defense so your immune system can fight off the seasonal flu virus if you’re exposed.

The vaccine is about 60 to 70 percent effective. Why not 100 percent? Because each year researchers have to guess which of the constantly changing strains might circulate, based on the previous flu season.

But this flu season offers lots of good news: 1) Some vaccines will combat four strains of the influenza virus (in the past it’s been three); 2) shots can be delivered with a new short needle for the needle-averse; 3) folks ages 18 to 49 who have an egg allergy can receive the new Flublok vaccine that doesn’t use eggs to grow the virus.

Everyone 6 months and older should get the flu vaccine as early in the season as possible. The vaccine even guards against more than flu: If you receive 10 flu shots in 10 years, you decrease your risk of inflammation—which can result in a heart attack or stroke—by up to 50 percent (inflammation during the flu can cause arterial plaques to break off, leading to heart attacks and strokes).

Of course, there’s no vaccine against the common cold or the dozens of other respiratory viruses in circulation now, but here’s what else you can do to stay well:

Wash, wash, wash your hands. Flu viruses can live for up to 30 minutes on your skin. Simple soap and water will kill the virus. When you can’t wash, use a hand sanitizer with alcohol.

Go to bed! Sleep may be the most underestimated cold fighter. Clocking fewer than seven hours makes you three times more likely catch a cold than if you got eight. And if you sleep poorly—repeatedly waking up at night—you’re five times likelier to catch a cold.

Don’t be D-ficient. Healthy levels of vitamin D make you half as likely to catch a cold or flu. And if a bug gets you anyway, you won’t feel crummy for nearly as long, possibly because D’s anti-inflammatory powers reduce the infection. It’s tough to get enough D from your diet (this vitamin is in fatty fish like salmon and tuna and fortified foods like milk) or from the sun year-round, so we recommend taking 1,000 international units (IUs) daily of a D3 supplement, the most active and potent form of the vitamin.

Finally, if you have a cold or the flu, stay home. This will keep you from infecting others and keep you safely off the roads—and the common cold is an automobile accident waiting to happen. The sneezing, tearing, fever and puffy eyes make your reactions behind the wheel as slow and unsteady as a partygoer who’s pounded down several drinks, U.K. researchers found. One reason: A  single sneeze lasts two to three seconds with your eyes closed. If you’re driving 70 mph and go ah-ah-ah-choo, you’re driving blind for more than 300 feet. That’s scary and also explains something we didn’t understand in the past—why getting a flu shot decreases accident deaths.

Q: Will going outdoors with wet hair really give you a cold?

A: People mistakenly associate being chilly and wet with an increased risk of illness, perhaps because they can shiver when sick and because the incidence of colds spikes in cold weather. (The fact that it’s called a cold further muddles the reasoning.)

But if you don’t have time for a blow-dry, don’t sweat it: Scientists had volunteers sit in meat freezers, take cold baths and walk around in wet socks in cold hallways—then they were all exposed to a respiratory virus. In nearly every case, the chilled volunteers didn’t get any sicker than people who were in warm, dry environments and also exposed to the virus.

Q: If I accidentally swallow my gum, will it stay in my stomach for years, like my grandma swore it would?

A: Sorry, Grandma, but there’s no truth behind the claim that swallowed gum sticks around that long. In fact, nothing we ingest can stay in our system for years. Chewing gum is made of fairly indigestible ingredients, so while the stomach may not break it down, it moves on through your digestive tract until it reaches your porcelain throne. But even though the body can excrete the gum within a day or two of swallowing it, we advise that you use gum for its intended purpose: chewing.

Q: To get rid of hiccups, I’ve heard I should drink water from the opposite side of the glass. Why would this work? And what causes hiccups?

A: People generally hiccup when the diaphragm involuntarily contracts. The contractions prompt the vocal cords to briefly close, leading to the hiccup sounds. Common causes include eating too much, consuming alcoholic beverages, swallowing excess air when chewing gum or gasping for air during times of  excitement.

The effectiveness of drinking from the opposite side of the glass is unproved, so we recommend drinking water (from any side of the cup) and holding your breath. You also could punch a boxer at the gym—the surprise as he hits you back can trigger a stress response and stop the hiccups. The key issue is the balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (which have nothing to do with your feelings toward the boxer).

The parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes called the “rest and digest” system, slows the heart rate and breathing, and allows digestive enzymes to do their work. The “fight or flight” sympathetic system increases heart rate and breathing, and boosts blood pressure.

Slow your breathing (drinking water, holding your breath) to decrease the sympathetic nervous stimulation, and set up stress (with the surprise punch) to increase it. But pinching your jaw line to stimulate the nerves in your throat might also work… and causes less damage!

Q: Will cooking food kill its “living” enzymes? A raw-foodist friend swears it’s true.

A: There is no blanket statement that applies to cooking methods for vegetables. Different foods respond differently—in some foods, heat can destroy the enzymes and nutrients, and in other foods heating actually activates the nutrients and makes them more bioavailable so your body can absorb them.

Also, the cooking method itself makes a difference. In general, steaming is better than boiling for most produce, in part because nutrients are leached out into the boiled water. Carrots, for example, have a higher beta-carotene level when steamed for 20 minutes, compared to boiled. The same is true for broccoli: One study found that steaming increased its glucosinolates (compounds which may fight cancer) by 17 percent, whereas boiling decreased them by 41 percent.

Cooking increases the lycopene (a pigment with beneficial antioxidant properties) content of tomatoes.

So remember that raw is not always better for nutrient availability. The important thing is to eat your veggies as often as possible the way that you like them. Bon appetit!

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