Saturday, December 30, 2006
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
There are more health-related myths about the holiday season than about any other time of year.
We just made that up, but it has the kernel of reasonableness that helps such untruths endure. After all, the holidays coincide with that other font of mythinformation — the cold and flu season.
How does medical lore get started? Are any old wives' tales scientifically valid?
It's the season to consider some popular misconceptions, bearing in mind that ongoing research may yet show today's myth to be tomorrow's gospel.
AMERICANS GAIN SEVERAL POUNDS OVER THE HOLIDAYS
Not true — or at least it wasn't six years ago. The average weight gain between Thanksgiving and New Year's was less than a pound, based on a study of 195 adults who were repeatedly weighed from September to mid-January by researchers at the National Institutes of Health.
It has been confirmed, however, that Americans think they gain more. In a 2004 survey of 1,000 adults by the Kaiser Permanente health plan, 43 percent of men and 49 percent of women said they tended to gain "a few pounds" during the holiday season
IF YOU CATCH A CHILL, YOU'LL CATCH A COLD
The theory is that being chilled reduces the body's ability to fight infection. While mothers of coat-spurning children may attest to this, studies were unable to verify it — until last year. The Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University in Wales observed 90 people who soaked their feet in ice-cold water 20 minutes a day for a week and compared them with an uncooled control group. Sure enough, frosty-footed subjects were more likely to develop cold symptoms during that week.
But critics gave the study the cold shoulder, pointing out that the participants simply filled out symptom questionnaires, rather than being checked for infection before and during the study.
PLAY IT SAFE: BUNDLE UP
Feed a cold, starve a fever. Does this mean you should add hunger to the misery of a fever? Should you chow down when you have a cold, even though you can't taste anything?
What if you have a cold and a fever, as did Mark Twain, who wove this odd adage into one of his stories?
Not to worry. This advice is probably rooted in the observation that feverish people have no appetite, say researchers at the Palo Alto Institute, a health research think tank. Last year in the journal Medical Hypotheses, they speculated that not eating — or, depending on the infection, eating — evolved as a way for the gut to help regulate the body's mix of infection-fighting white blood cells. Some cells are better at tackling cold viruses, others at battling fever-causing bacteria, explained Stanford researcher Anthony J. Yun.
But now that we have antibiotics and fever-reducing medicines, the whole starve-a-fever thing "may be less adaptive today" than in prehistoric times, he wrote.
SUICIDES INCREASE AROUND THE HOLIDAYS
This is a myth, says the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. It has been perpetuated, the center says on its Web site, "by reporters reluctant to give up the ultimate, counterintuitive take on the season of good cheer."
Of course, reporters might be influenced by mental health experts' annual warnings about holiday blues, stress, and seasonal affective disorder.
In any case, since the Annenberg Center began tracking the media's erroneous reportage, stories about holiday suicides have gotten smarter. Eighteen percent debunked the myth in 1999 vs. 36 percent last Christmas.
Suicide rates are actually at their lowest in December, and peak in the spring and early fall, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
YOU CAN GET A COLD FROM LICKING YOUR FINGERS
Among those who mistakenly think so is the publicist for Natural Dentist Healthy Gums rinse, a mouthwash. A recent news release pitched the product as a way to kill those nasty cold germs that "can enter the mouth through nail-biting, touching your lips or licking your fingers."
While hand-washing is an excellent defense against cold viruses, the reason is that fingers can spread the bug to the nose or eyes. That's where it normally gets access to your upper respiratory tract — not through your mouth.
Doctors say the virus most often spreads in droplets that are sneezed or coughed into the air, then inhaled or touched by the next victim.
AN APPLE A DAY KEEPS THE DOCTOR AWAY
This is from a nursery rhyme that obviously goes back to a time when doctors made house calls and pesticides weren't a worry.
Apples are not a magic food, said Jeanes Hospital dietitian Jennifer Lynn-Pullman, but they are an excellent source of phytochemicals — biologically active compounds that have been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer.
In laboratory studies, apples, especially the peels, have been shown to inhibit cancer-cell growth, lower cholesterol, and scavenge harmful oxygen molecules. Apples also are a good source of constipation-fighting fiber, Lynn-Pullman said.
But don't expect such benefits if you like your daily apple in, say, a pie.
DON'T CROSS YOUR EYES OR THEY MIGHT STAY THAT WAY
Little kids love to warn one another about this potential calamity, which has no basis in fact.
"You can cross your eyes, sit too close to the TV, read in dim light — it doesn't cause injury," said Robert S. Bailey Jr., an ophthalmologist at Wills Eye Hospital.
Crossed eyes, or strabismus, affect about 4 percent of Americans. It is often present at birth or develops within the first few years — which may explain how it became a childhood fear. Although the precise cause is usually unknown, strabismus often can be corrected with surgery and glasses.
CRACKING YOUR KNUCKLES CAUSES ARTHRITIS
When you "crack" a knuckle, bones in the finger move apart, reducing pressure on the lubricating fluid in the joint and enabling tiny nitrogen bubbles to escape — with a popping sound.
Intuitively, years and years of doing this should be harmful. But studies have found that, while knuckle-crackers tend to have lower grip strength, they do not have higher rates of arthritis than people without the annoying habit.
Knuckle-cracking may be a way of dealing with stress, said Nora Sandorfi, a rheumatologist at Thomas Jefferson University. One study found a link between knuckle-cracking and those other well-known tension-relievers — biting nails, smoking and drinking alcohol.
COUGH SYRUPS HELP HACKING CHILDREN SLEEP BETTER
This is true. But the intriguing thing is that fake cough syrups work just as well as the real thing to relieve youngsters' roof-rattling rasping.
Numerous studies, including one conducted in 2004 by pediatricians at Pennsylvania State College of Medicine, have concluded that the placebo effect is the key to nonprescription cough medicines' success. Some researchers speculate that's why the products are sold as sweet syrups rather than as tablets or capsules.
(c) 2006, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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