10 Pervasive Health Myths

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 28, 2011

This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a long time — and a guest blogger offered to write it instead so I happily agreed.  I originally was interested in writing this post from an article in the New York Times science section called Health “facts” you thought you knew published THREE YEARS AGO (yes, that’s how long draft posts sit around in my blog sandbox).  Heavens.  A bunch of them  I already knew were hooey (like “don’t swim after eating” or “Natural is safer than man-made”), but there were a few surprises, like: “Drink 8 glasses of water a day,” or “Poison ivy is contagious”, or “Shaving makes hair grow back faster and courser”: I find that I’m just as susceptible to stupid biology myths as most folks are to stupid physics myths. It makes me humble.

Here’s the post:

10 Pervasive Health Myths

From “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” to “you’ll catch your death out in the rain,” a number of old wives’ tales and oft-repeated “pearls of wisdom” pass as solid health advice today. While a few of them offer helpful tips, many of them represent health myths so pervasive that it’s very difficult to shake their hold on society. Here we will explore 10 pervasive health myths that go against what sound science has proven or represent an unsubstantiated claim.

1.) Feed a cold. Starve a fever.

This age-old health advice may not be 100 percent myth, but it is unsubstantiated. According to a discussion of the matter featured on Duke Health, some evidence suggests that eating less when you have a fever may improve some facets of your body’s immune response, but chances are you won’t have much of an appetite anyway. Doctors do not suggest that those with fevers should actually starve themselves, however. Instead of dwelling on unsubstantiated claims, the article indicated, it’s better to focus on tried-and-true methods of recovering from fevers and colds getting plenty of rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and keeping your strength up by satisfying your hunger with nutritious foods whether you have a cold or a fever.

2.) If you’re sick, you should take lots of vitamin C.

Again, this more recent bit of health advice is largely unsubstantiated. The use of vitamin C to both prevent colds and decrease the severity of colds has been the subject of much research, with a variety of results. In a number of studies, overall, those who took vitamin C were at no less risk of contracting colds than those who didn’t and no difference in the severity of symptoms has been observed, according to Mayo Clinic. A study did reveal that taking vitamin C reduced the duration of colds a minimal amount. But as for vitamin C used for treatment of colds? No benefits have been observed, the article noted.

3.) If you’re sick, you should take Echinacea.

As with vitamin C, this advice is unsubstantiated. Taking Echinacea to get over colds faster is still a big maybe, according to a Mayo Clinic doctor’s take on the matter. Again, the studies go back and forth, with some studies showing no benefit, and other studies showing Echinacea as being helpful in reducing a cold’s duration and symptoms. Until more comparable studies are conducted, it’s still uncertain that Echinacea is actually helpful.

4.) You can get sick by being exposed to cold weather.

The reason this myth is so pervasive is because in the winter months, a large proportion of the population does indeed get sick. But is the weather really to blame?  Probably not. People come down with the flu by being exposed to an influenza virus, which usually comes from being in close contact with those who have it. Winter months bring more people together indoors in close proximity to each other, which lead to a greater chance of exposure, according to a doctor with Sutter Davis Hospital. It’s true that cold weather can cause your nose to get runny, but this short-term “symptom” on the goes away when you get warm again. Instead of avoiding the cold, it’s better to avoid being in crowded areas and wash your hands thoroughly.

5.) You can get the flu from a flu shot.

The opposite is actually true. Getting a flu shot each year is actually the best way to prevent getting the flu, according to the CDC Contrary to a popular line of thought, you can’t get the flu from getting a seasonal flu shot. The flu vaccine contains an inactivated, or killed, virus that does not make you sick, the CDC notes. If you get the flu after receiving the flu shot, it’s possible that you contracted a strain of flu that was not included in your flu shot, or that you contracted the flu before the vaccine could prepare your body for its onslaught.

6.) Putting hot food in the refrigerator will ruin the food.

Again, the opposite is true. When you have food leftover from a meal you’ve just prepared, it’s best to cool it immediately so that bacteria doesn’t begin to grow.  In fact, improper cooling is one of the leading causes of foodborne illness in the U.S., according to Alaska’s Food Safety and Sanitation Program. Bacteria growth occurs in foods left sitting at room temperature, the article notes.

7.) You shouldn’t swim until 30 minutes have passed after eating or you’ll get cramps and drown.

While swimmers have been known to get minor cramps while swimming after eating, none are so immobilizing that you will lose the use of your arms and legs, which help keep your head above water, according to Duke Health.

8.) If you swallow your gum, it takes seven years to digest.

Not true. If you swallow your gum, it usually passes through your body and makes its exit in a normal amount of time like any other food you consume, according to health information provided by Harvard’s teaching hospital. The myth probably arose because gum is composed of an indigestible base, but that only means the gum leaves the body intact. However, swallowed gum has in rare instances caused intestinal obstruction when swallowed in large proportions, the article noted.

9.) Reading in dim light will ruin your eyesight.

Reading in dim light can cause eye strain and headaches and lead you to blink less, but no one has observed any of these adverse effects to be permanent, according to a collection of myths explored in PubMed Central. The function and structure of your eyes is not permanently affected by reading in low light.

10.) Skinny people are healthier.

Not always. While maintaining a normal body weight helps you avoid many of the health problems associated with obesity, it doesn’t mean you can’t come down with Type 2 diabetes or have high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart problems. According to an MSNBC article on the matter, thin people should be aware that fat surrounding their vital organs that is invisible to the naked eye could put their bodies at risk if they continue to eat foods high in fat and sugar and do not exercise. In fact, it’s possible for obese people who live active lifestyles to be more healthy than inactive people in a normal weight range, the article notes.

By-line:

Mariana Ashley is a freelance writer who particularly enjoys writing about online colleges. She loves receiving reader feedback, which can be directed to mariana.ashley031 @gmail.com.

Image from PiccoloNamek on Wikimedia

{ 1 comment }

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