More Medical Myths

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True or false? Here are some common myths related to your health

Medical myths are false beliefs about our health and healthcare that we pass on to each other with the best of intentions. Indeed, many doctors believe certain medical myths!  Here are 9 common ones.

Going out in the cold causes a cold.

We have all experienced the common cold. It is an infection caused by one of a number of viruses, most commonly rhinovirus. Many studies have been done on this topic, and the result it clear – going out in the cold does not cause you to get a cold.

The myth may be rooted the actual name of the illness or it may come from the fact that more people tend to catch colds in the winter. This is because the virus lives longer in cold environments and people tend to spend more time indoors in closed environments where they share germs. But you can go out in the cold without fear of the weather causing you to catch a cold. (Sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of catching a cold, perhaps because your defenses are down.) But the cause of a cold is always a virus, and if you’re not exposed to it you won’t catch it no matter how tired or cold you are.

Having a high PSA means one has prostate cancer.

This myth brings up the very important issue of screening for illnesses. Screening is testing for an illness when one has no symptoms, in the hopes of catching it early and thereby curing it. Screening tests are important but need to be understood before you go ahead with them, because some have risks as well as benefits.

The PSA test is a blood test that measures Prostate Specific Antigen. An elevated PSA level is associated with an increased risk of having prostate cancer. There are two important things to note about this: (1) There are other reasons to have an elevated PSA so someone with a high PSA does not necessarily have cancer; (2) If you do have a high PSA your doctor will likely recommend that you have further testing, which may have some risks associated with it.

So just because you have a high PSA does not mean you have prostate cancer. And before you have any screening test (including colonoscopy, mammography, etc.), speak with your doctor about the risks and benefits of the test and decide if it is worthwhile to proceed.

Reading in dim light damages the eyes.

While commonly believed to be true, this is a myth nonetheless. Reading in dim light has not been shown to cause any permanent damage to the eyes. Some people feel that their vision is a bit blurred or have a headache after reading in dim light because they have strained their eyes — but this is temporary, not permanent. The same is true of watching TV too close to the screen: it causes no permanent damage to the eyes.

Sleeping too little will kill you.

Most people need an average of 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. But if you don’t get enough, can it be harmful to your health? There is some evidence that sleeping too little puts extra strain on your cardiovascular system, but there has also been at least one study showing that people who sleep too much live less long. So the jury is still out on this one. What is most important is to sleep enough so that you don’t feel tired and are able to function properly.

Green sputum means you need antibiotics.

The colour of your sputum (aka snot, phlegm — the stuff that comes out of your nose or that you cough up when you are sick) does not indicate whether or not you need antibiotics. Antibiotics are medications that treat bacterial illnesses, like strep throat and many pneumonias. They are not useful in treating viral illnesses such as the common cold or the flu. If you are ill and have colored sputum it is reasonable to visit the doctor to determine if you have a viral or a bacterial illness.

If you have a viral illness (like the common cold), your body’s immune system will eventually take care of healing you. In the meantime certain medications may be useful in treating your symptoms so you don’t feel as rotten, but antibiotics will not help fight a viral illness — your natural defenses will.

Natural medications are always better than prescribed ones.

Natural is great, and in general if an illness can be treated without using medication then it should be. Many people are using natural products to treat their illnesses. What is important to remember is that nature is responsible for both our best cures and our most effective poisons. So it is important to know exactly what you are getting if you use natural products, which can be a mixture of a number of substances. (The positive thing about pharmaceuticals is that they are strictly regulated, so that you know exactly what is contained in the medication you are taking.) It is a good idea to explore all options, and it is equally important to know exactly what is contained in whatever product you decide to put in your body.

We need detoxification treatments for health and weight loss.

A healthy body detoxifies itself. The kidneys and liver are two of the organs that do this. This is why we get sick when these organs fail to work. For example, when the kidneys don’t work properly people get hemodialysis in order to detoxify their blood externally, doing what healthy kidneys do naturally. Some people do claim that they feel better after detoxification treatments. If you are considering doing something like this, discuss it first with your doctor and look at the potential risks and benefits.

Expensive supplements and video games are protective against Alzheimer’s Disease.

Dementia is a permanent decline in mental function, including memory. The most common cause is Alzheimer’s Disease. Numerous studies have been done to see how to prevent this devastating illness. There is evidence that staying intellectually, socially, and physically active is associated with decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. In addition there is evidence that controlling your blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure may also be protective. And studies are ongoing about the effects of antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, which are found in fruits and vegetables.

All of this means that a healthy lifestyle including a good diet and exercise can protect your brain as well as the rest of your body. There is currently no clear evidence that any specific supplements or videogames will protect you from Alzheimer’s disease, but most do not pose any risk to your health. In summary, a healthy, active lifestyle is currently the best weapon we currently have against dementia.

The flu vaccine will make you sick.

The most common vaccine given to older adults is the flu vaccine. It is formulated to prevent the flu, which is a serious infectious illness that kills thousands of people every year, especially the elderly, the very young, and people with chronic illness. The vaccine is therefore recommended especially for these people, as well as those who work with these populations (like healthcare workers). The vaccine is available by injection and by nasal spray. The injection is a dead virus, which cannot cause the flu but may cause a bit of muscle ache and, rarely, a temporary unwell feeling. The inhaled vaccine is a weakened virus, which, even if it causes a mild illness, will cause one much less severe than the actual flu.

Remember that it is always better to prevent an illness than to treat it, and there is no cure for the flu. So get the vaccine, and prevent it. You most likely will not get sick, and if you do, you’ll be much less sick than you would be if you caught the flu.

A few more quick myths

Hair and nails continue to grow after death: No they don’t.

Shaving makes hair grow in thicker: No it doesn’t.

You need eight glasses of water per day: Hydrating is good but you don’t need eight glasses per day.

Teething causes fever: Not really.

Sugar causes hyperactivity: It doesn’t.

Chocolate causes acne: It doesn’t

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