Medicine Without the Myths

By Andrew Adesman, MD Author of BabyFacts: The Truth About Your Child’s Health From Newborn Through Preschool, a book for parents that debunks more than 150 myths and misconceptions.He is Chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park.

Medicine Without the Myths

Fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy said, “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic… Mythology distracts us everywhere.” Although President Kennedy was not referring to medical myths, his comment applies every bit as much to health information because medical myths are abundant and compromise so many aspects of our lives.

Are medical myths really that common? And, do they really pose a risk to someone’s health or safety? Although no one reading this essay really believes that if you swallow a watermelon seed, a watermelon will grow in your belly, or that if you cross your eyes, they will get stuck that way forever, these are the exceptions to the rule. There are so many more medical myths that not only appear credible but are embraced not just by the public, but also by doctors and other health professionals.

I offer myself as a prime example. Despite being a well-trained pediatrician, I have discovered in recent years that many of the “popular truths” that I have believed to be true are indeed false. When my own children were younger (and I was not as smart about myths), I insisted they wait 30 minutes after eating before they could go swimming.  (Don’t tell my kids that I denied them hours of water play each summer!) I also remember taking a bandage off my daughter’s scrape, assuring her that it would heal better if exposed to air at night! (Wrong again!)

Nutrition and Diet Myths

  • Myth: Frozen vegetables are not as good as fresh vegetables. Truth: Many nutrients degrade over time during shipping; freezing is often done right after picking.
  • Myth: Eating carrots will improve your vision. Truth: Carrots have vitamin A, and a deficiency of this vitamin can result in “night blindness.” However, vitamin A deficiency is exceedingly rare in the United States.
  • Myth: You are more likely to gain weight if you eat at night. Truth: Calories are calories!

Common Cold Myths

  • Myth: Feed a cold, starve a fever. Truth: Whether you have a cold or a fever, you likely need increased fluids.
  • Myth: Avoid dairy products if you have a cold since they increase mucus production.  Truth: Many doctors still embrace this myth despite several studies proving it to be false.
  • Myth: You’re more likely to catch a cold by going outside in cold/damp weather without a jacket. Truth: Although it is thought colds are more common in winter because people are indoors together more, there is some research that suggests that cold weather may reduce your immune protection. In other words, there may be some truth to this myth.

First Aid Myths

  • Myth: Quickly put ice on a burn. Truth: Definitely not – use cool water, never ice!
  • Myth: Wounds will heal more quickly if exposed to fresh air at night. Truth: Wounds are more likely to scab if exposed to the air; this can lead to a bigger scar.
  • Myth: If someone has a seizure, put a spoon or wallet into his mouth to prevent choking or biting the tongue. Truth: By doing this, you run a greater risk of injuring yourself or the person with the seizure. Put nothing in the mouth!
  • Myth: The best way to stop a bloody nose is to tilt the head back. Truth: Sit down, lean forward a little, and continuously pinch the soft part of the nose for 5-10 minutes non-stop.  I repeat: non-stop!

Myths for Parents and Grandparents

  • Myth: Cracking your knuckles will lead to arthritis. Truth: You may end up with bigger knuckles, but not arthritis.
  • Myth: Don’t give milk or dairy products to a child with diarrhea. Truth: This was standard recommendation from pediatricians; our understanding about diarrhea and nutrition has improved.
  • Myth: Reading in the dark can cause later vision or eye problems. Truth: It may cause temporary eye strain, but no long-term consequences.
  • Myth: Sitting too close to the TV will harm your vision. Truth: If a child sits too close, it may be because of a hearing problem!
  • Myth: Children with fever should not be allowed outdoors. Truth: hildren with fever should probably not be around other children; however, if they feel well, they can go outside to play or relax.
  • Myth: Caffeine will stunt a child’s growth. Truth: This is simply false.
  • Myth: If a child hits her head, a parent needs to keep her awake. Truth: If a child never lost consciousness and has no other complaints, then it is generally sufficient to be sure that a child can be aroused once he or she has fallen asleep.)
  • Myth: A glass of warm milk at bedtime helps you fall asleep. Truth: Although milk does indeed have tryptophan in it, there is not enough in a glass of milk to make a child sleepy.

Miscellaneous Myths

  • If you cut or shave hair, it will grow back more quickly and thickly. (Nope!)
  • You cannot get pregnant while breastfeeding. Breastfeeding exclusively offers pretty good protection for a few weeks after you deliver; however, after this time period, one cannot assume that breastfeeding an infant will prevent another pregnancy.
  • Stretching before physical activity will reduce your risk of injury. Warming up is good, but stretching can be counter-productive.
  • Humans only use 10% of their brain.
  • You can eat something if it dropped on the floor for just a few seconds. The “5-second rule” has been researched by several investigators.  All foods will pick up some germs if they fall on the floor – even if it is for a brief moment.  Moist foods, like a slice of bologna, will pick up more germs than foods with hard non-sticky surfaces, such as a sucking candy that has not yet been in your mouth.

Old Wives’ Tales?

Interestingly, although the term “old wives’ tale” suggests that grandmotherly advice is generally wrong, it turns out grandma was correct when it comes to chicken soup. Several studies have shown that chicken soup does indeed help alleviate cold symptoms.  Who knows … the next time you have a cold, maybe you should go to your kitchen pantry before you go to your medicine cabinet!

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