Survey Reveals Majority of Americans Believe Myths About What Causes Colds


A new national survey of U.S. adults has found the majority of Americans are misinformed about what causes the common cold, and how and when they should treat it. Much of this confusion comes from myths Americans grew up with that have stuck with them throughout their adult lives. Nearly three-quarters of consumers (72 percent) believe there is not much they can do about a cold except mask the symptoms and wait it out. In fact, one-third of cold sufferers admit they wait until they feel miserable before taking medications that can help.

According to a second survey of U.S. pharmacists, this consumer belief is in direct contrast to what the majority of U.S. pharmacists believe 93 percent of pharmacists report that early treatment of a cold can actually prevent a trip to the doctor's office, and 84 percent of pharmacists believe consumers often make poor choices about the best treatments for their colds.

The surveys, which were commissioned by Matrixx Initiatives, Inc., makers of Zicam, also found that most consumers harbor myths about what causes a cold and what remedies are effective. While 86 percent of consumer survey respondents understand that colds are caused by viruses, 65 percent of consumer survey respondents also incorrectly believe that bacteria can cause a cold, and 53 percent of consumer survey respondents mistakenly believe you can treat a cold with antibiotics. Consumers also tend to rely on a variety of home remedies, including chicken soup, orange juice and vitamins, even though nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of consumer survey respondents acknowledge that some of what they learned from their mothers about catching and treating colds is untrue and not based on science.

The top five myths about colds that pharmacists say are most difficult to debunk are:

- Antibiotics can kill the germs that cause colds

- Changes in the weather can cause colds

- Getting wet and chilled can cause colds

- Sitting in a draft can cause colds

- Avoiding changes in temperatures will help prevent colds

As consumers prepare for cold season to hit, pharmacists say they see a need to better educate consumers and combat cold-care myths. Ninety-two percent of pharmacists believe patients harbor misconceptions about colds and how to best treat and manage them, and 97 percent of pharmacists feel consumers should seek their recommendations about cold treatments and management more often.

"Consumer misperceptions about how they catch a cold and how and when they should treat a cold are the most prevalent barriers to optimal treatment," says Dr. Fred Eckel, professor of pharmacy practice and experiential education at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Eshelman School of Pharmacy. "As cold season approaches, it's important for consumers to understand the benefits of early intervention against a cold, and to focus on effective ways to shorten its duration. The results of this survey mirror what pharmacists see every day - our patients still believe many of the myths they grew up with and they need better information on how to treat their colds."

In addition to revealing consumer confusion about how and when to treat the common cold, the surveys also brought to light a discrepancy between consumers and pharmacists about when to prepare for a cold. Ninety-one percent of pharmacists feel the appropriate time to assess and purchase over-the-counter medications is prior to becoming sick or at the first sign of symptoms, but only one in four (24 percent) consumers report having OTC cold and flu medications on hand for when they become sick.

According to the survey, most pharmacists typically recommend zinc, an active ingredient in Zicam, as an effective way to reduce the duration of a cold, but consumers have yet to catch up. More than half (52 percent) of pharmacists typically recommend taking zinc products in the early stages of a cold, with only 12 percent of consumers proactively doing so. In fact, the surveys show consumers are three times as likely to try chicken soup (41 percent) as a means of stopping the progression of a cold as they are to try zinc (12 percent).

"The surveys point to a clear need for pharmacists and doctors to educate consumers on early intervention, and help them identify the best remedies to treat the common cold early and help them get over it faster," says Eckel. "Zinc-based products do more than just relieve symptoms -- they are effective at actually shortening the duration of a cold."

As pharmacists continue to play a more prominent role in consumer care, 98 percent of pharmacists agree they should be more involved in educating consumers about appropriate cold treatments, and 83 percent of pharmacists believe they should be a primary resource of information about colds and flu. Most consumers agree, with 89 percent of consumer survey respondents saying they feel comfortable asking pharmacists about OTC medicines and cold remedies.

The consumer survey was based on a nationally representative sample of 500 U.S. adults. Respondents were carefully sampled and recruited to represent the full U.S. adult population in terms of gender, age and region according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Data was collected between August 17 and August 22, 2010.

The pharmacist survey was based on responses from a sample of 500 licensed pharmacists from independent, chain and large retail (supermarket) pharmacies. The sample was drawn from a full list of more than 60,000 pharmacies in the United States. Only one pharmacist per pharmacy was allowed to participate. Data was collected between August 12 and August 25, 2010.

The margin of sampling error for a purely random sample of 500 survey respondents is +/- 4 percentage points. Survey design, data collection and analysis were done by Versta Research and sponsored by Matrixx Initiatives, Inc.

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