What is the best medical advice your mother ever gave you? To eat your vegetables? Don’t cross your eyes, they’ll stay that way? Wait an hour after lunch before going swimming?
Chances are, your mother learned those pearls of wisdom from her mother and not a medical professional. Sometimes, the best home remedies come from past generations. Just as often, though, mom’s advice turns out to be more fiction than fact.
The Washington Times recently posed some age-old medical myths to doctors and other experts.
* Don’t go outside with wet hair or you’ll catch a cold.
“Absolutely untrue,” says Dr. Herbert Muncie, chairman of the department of family medicine at the University of Maryland Medical School.
“This myth probably started because when you go outside with wet hair, you lose body heat and you feel chilled. The theory must have been if you were chilled, then you will probably get a cold. There were actually tests done on this theory about 20 years ago, and they showed no difference between wet hair and dry.”
A variety of germs causes colds, which are actually viral infections of the lining of the nose, sinuses, throat and large airways, Dr. Muncie says. Germs are primarily spread through the air and through direct contact with another person who has the germs.
The best way to avoid catching a cold is to avoid contact with people who have active germs and to wash hands often, he says.
* Chocolate causes acne.
This myth “probably started because teen-agers get acne and teen-agers often eat a lot of junk,” Dr. Muncie says.
But the theory has never been proved.
“There have been studies on the effects of soda and chocolate on acne, but there was not enough evidence to show a connection,” says Dr. Lynn McKinley-Grant, a dermatologist in Northwest Washington.
Washington dermatologist Dr. Gary Peck says not only is the chocolate and acne myth unproved, it can also add stress to the situation for an already self-conscious acne sufferer.
“You have an acne patient who might already be upset over his or her appearance. Then society says, ‘If only you have a good diet, you would be out of this fix,’ ” Dr. Peck says. “That adds fuel to the fire, imparting that the patient is to blame.”
Most acne is a result of clogged pores due to hormones and can be aggravated by medications, cosmetics and sun exposure, Dr. McKinley-Grant says. Even washing one’s face several times a day will have little effect on the condition, since breakouts are not caused by surface dirt.
Dr. McKinley-Grant advises her patients that if they find that chocolate affects their skin, cut back on it.
“For some people, the oil in chocolate, as well in fried foods, can have an effect,” she says.
* After you eat, wait an hour before going in the water.
This might be good advice, Dr. Muncie says.
“I grew up with that one,” he says. “There is no question, eating increases blood supply to the stomach, so if you are swimming vigorously immediately after eating, you may not feel good, but you won’t cramp up.”
Still, Trina Wood-Conover, director of training for Northern Virginia’s Century Pool Management, says she still advises lifeguards to stick to a loose interpretation of this rule.
“First of all, we try to keep food away from the pool,” she says. “We have had children in near-drowning situations who were trying to swim and chew their lunch at the same time. If kids are horsing in the pool, they can vomit. Some people do get cramps after eating, so I recommend staying within a standard of 30 minutes. But it is not one of those things that is written in stone.”
* Chicken soup cures a cold.
This is a really old old wives’ tale, one that dates back to the 13th century, medical historians say.
While there are nutrients in the vegetables, noodles and chicken broth in chicken soup, none of them likely has an impact on the clogged nasal passages. The combination of garlic and steam heat give chicken soup its therapeutic value.
“Many of the basic, common-sense therapies that mothers and grandmothers have depended on through the years are still valid,” says Dr. Mary L. Hardy, a Los Angeles internist and a member of the American Holistic Medical Association. “Chicken soup, which not only breaks up nasal congestion, also contains garlic, which has antibiotic properties.”
Dr. Hardy suggests these other natural, time-tested remedies for cold symptoms:
* Wild cherry bark It is no accident that many cold remedies contain wild cherry flavor. At the turn of the century, most cough syrup was extracted from the bark of a wild cherry tree.
* Eucalyptus Eucalyptus or camphor rubs can loosen congestion of a chest cold and open sinuses.
* Honey and lemon An occasional spoonful can help relieve a scratchy throat.
* Cayenne Adding hot pepper, horseradish or ginger to your diet can clear clogged sinuses.
* Thyme This herb has antibacterial properties that can aid in treating an upper respiratory infection.
However, don’t look for miracle cures. While these ingredients can help relieve symptoms, there is no cure for the common cold, doctors warn. It will run its course in four to 10 days.
* Rub a little whiskey on baby’s sore, teething gums.
“Absolutely no,” says Dr. Julian Orenstein, a pediatric attending physician at Inova Fairfax Hospital. “What alcohol does is lower the blood sugar, and a child can have such low blood sugar that he can have a seizure.”
This practice probably began when there were few teething remedies for babies, he says. The effect of “a little whiskey” either numbed the gums or made infants too drunk to care that their teeth were coming in.
The problem with a prescription like that is a very small amount of liquor can hurt a tiny baby, says Dr. Orenstein.
“It is easy to give a toxic dose,” he says.
Dr. Orenstein offers these safer remedies for teething pain:
* Numbing agents such as Ora-jel, which contain safe levels of benzocaine, should give baby enough relief to get through a feeding.
* Appropriate doses of Tylenol or ibuprofen.
* Chomping on frozen bagels or frozen teething rings.
* Rubbing baby’s gums with a clean finger or piece of gauze.
* Feed a cold, starve a fever.
The bottom line with either avoid becoming dehydrated.
Other than that rule, the amount you eat or don’t eat will make little difference in relieving a cold or the flu.
“It has to run its course,” Dr. Muncie says. “Do whatever you can tolerate. If you are hungry, eat. If you are thirsty, drink. But following “feed a cold, starve a fever is not going to alter the course of the illness.”
Remaining properly hydrated will make you feel better while the illness is running its course, Dr. Hardy says.
“Grandmother was right when she said to rehydrate,” she says. “The first defense system in the body consists of the mucous membranes lining the upper respiratory tract, and those work better when they are moist.”
Fruit juice, such as orange juice, is also a good weapon against colds and flu because it is a source of vitamin C, Dr. Hardy says. She advises diluting juice with water to reduce its sugar content. Too many sugary foods can hinder one’s immune response, she says.