R5 22 Biggest Medical Myths—Exposed

Illustrations by Rhonda Mulder

Hey, you. Yeah, you—the one who just swallowed a seed from that watermelon you bought at the farmers’ market. We wanted to express our condolences, ’cause a watermelon plant will soon start growing in your stomach.

Okay, we know that one’s silly, but there are a lot of other medical myths out there that are so widespread and seem so sensible that even the smartest, savviest people—by that, of course, we mean you—fall for them. Read on for some of the commonest ones, all debunked by some of the county’s leading experts.

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1. THE ONLY WAY TO CONTROL HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE IS THROUGH MEDICATION

While it’s true that there are some great blood-pressure drugs on the market (a real blessing for people who need them), you may not have to pop a pill to treat your hypertension. “Your diet is extremely important in managing it,” says Dr. Arthur E. Fass, chief of cardiology at Phelps Memorial Hospital. Eating plenty of fruits and veggies, and limiting your sodium intake, can be as effective as anything a pharmaceutical company ever invented. “So can lifestyle modifications, such as exercise and practicing relaxation techniques like breathing exercises and meditation,” he adds.

2. DRINKING MILK OR EATING DAIRY PRODUCTS MAKES YOU PHLEGMY

“I wish I could convince more of my patients that this is nonsense,” says Dr. Kira Geraci-Ciardullo, an allergist in private practice in Mamaroneck. “In fact, I wish I could convince my own parents.” There’s no scientific evidence that “this is true at all,” she says. So how did this idea take hold? “When people have a respiratory illness, we tell them to stick to drinking clear liquids, so many assume that’s because dairy products will produce mucus and make their cold even worse,” she explains. “But really, we just tell them that because their stomachs may be irritated, too, and clear fluids are easier to digest.” So go ahead and pour the moo juice—it’s nothing to sneeze at, even when you have a cold.

3. SWALLOWING CHEWING GUM IS DANGEROUS

“It’s totally harmless,” says Dr. Alan Jaffe, a gastroenterologist with WESTMED Medical Group in White Plains. “If there’s sugar or flavorings in the gum, your body will digest them. The rest just goes through your G.I. tract and passes in your stool.”

4. GETTING CHILLED CAN MAKE YOU CATCH A COLD

Sorry, moms of the world: you’ll have to find some other reason to force your kid to wear a coat (how about because you’re feeling cold?). “Folks often think that this myth is true because winter is when most people catch a cold,” says Dr. Barney Newman, medical director and internist for WESTMED Medical Group. “People catch more colds then because they end up spending more time inside, in close spaces where they come in contact with many other people and their viruses and germs.” So feel free to stay cool if you want—it’s cool with doctors.

5. IF YOU’VE LOST YOUR VOICE, YOU SHOULD WHISPER

That’s advice that makes your ENT want to, well, scream. Don’t be The Hoarse Whisperer, using a forced, emphatic rasp to get your message across, warns Dr. Stephen Salzer, an otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon at Greenwich Hospital in Greenwich, Connecticut. “You’ll put excessive pressure on your vocal cords, and the problem can get even worse.” If there’s something you just have to say, speak in a low, emotionless manner, letting the air flow over your vocal cords in a very relaxed way,” Dr. Salzer advises. Or better still, be that rare Metro-North passenger who doesn’t spend the entire ride yakking on his cellphone. Rest your voice as much as possible and drink plenty of fluids, and you should be back at full volume within two weeks.

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6. Pregnant Women Need to Eat Twice as Many Calories

That would be fun, wouldn’t it? Yet eating for two doesn’t mean doubling up on your chow-downs, cautions Dr. Larry Mendelowitz, director of obstetrics and gynecology at Phelps Memorial Hospital in Sleepy Hollow and an assistant attending physician at Westchester Medical Center. To meet your growing baby’s nutritional needs, you generally need about 300 extra calories (roughly equivalent to a cup of yogurt and a piece of fruit) daily, at most—and that’s for a woman of average height and weight: “Since so many patients are above normal weight even before their pregnancies, their physicians might advise them to increase their intake by even fewer calories, though losing weight in pregnancy isn’t recommended,”

Dr. Mendelowitz says. Following doctors’ orders will help keep you within the recommended weight gain for pregnancy—about 25 pounds—lowering your risk of developing pregnancy-related diabetes or high blood pressure, or, should you need a C-section, anesthesia complications.

7. You Need to Drink Eight Glasses of Water a Day

Gulp—that’s a lot…but, fortunately, you really DON’T have to drink that much, says Dr. Arno D. Housman, chief of urology at Phelps. “A normally hydrated person will urinate about six cups of water a day, and lose another two cups through things like perspiration, breathing, and bowel movements, bringing the total to eight cups,” he says. Your kidneys make sure you remain in balance, so if you consume less, you’ll pee less, too. And your body is programmed to recognize when you need more fluids. So heed your thirst, but don’t feel pressured to keep drinking long after it’s slaked (in fact, drinking too much can be both uncomfortable and dangerous, causing you to lose potassium and water-soluble B and C vitamins). “And those eight cups of fluid you need aren’t limited to glasses of water,” Dr. Housman adds. “Juice, coffee, soda, Jell-O, ice cream, yogurt, fruit, vegetables, soup, and even salad all count!” So how do you know if you’re drinking enough? “If you’re urinating six times in twenty-four hours, producing about a cup each time, you’re fine,” he says.

8. LUNG CANCER IS A SMOKER’S DISEASE

This notion may make you breathe easier—but it’s one that can be dangerous to believe. According to the American Lung Association, about 13 percent of cases aren’t due to this awful, thoroughly unhealthy habit. So aside from never lighting up, are there ways to reduce your risks? “First, avoid secondhand smoke,” advises Dr. David Weiss, a pulmonologist with Westchester Health Associates, a clinical affiliate of The Mount Sinai Medical Center. “It’s also important to check radon levels before buying a home,” he adds. This colorless, odorless, radioactive gas, which occurs naturally in soil and enters houses through gaps and cracks, is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Regular doctor checkups are a good idea too, especially if you’ve ever worked in a coal mine or have been exposed to asbestos, both known carcinogens.

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9.  POISON IVY RASH IS CONTAGIOUS

“The blisters that form just contain serum from your blood, the same as if you got a burn, and they’re no more catching than a burn blister is,” says Dr. Evelyn Placek, a dermatologist with Dermatology Consultants of Westchester in Scarsdale. (The rash continues to spread across the skin because of a delayed allergic reaction.) The only time you’re possibly in danger is in the first hour or two after the person has come in contact with the plant—that’s when the resins from the poison ivy are still fresh on the skin and theoretically transferable.

10. AFTER A CERTAIN AGE, YOU’RE TOO OLD FOR SURGERY

That would be news to Dr. Avraham Merav, chief of Thoracic Surgery at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center in Sleepy Hollow. “During more than thirty years of practice, I’ve operated on almost five hundred patients who were older than eighty, and some in their nineties,” he says. More important than a patient’s chronological age, he notes, is her biological one, signified by her overall physical condition. Merav once gave an 87-year-old woman an emergency quintuple coronary bypass—and danced with her on her 100th birthday.

11. YOU CAN CATCH AN STD FROM A TOILET SEAT

The one-word answer to this prevalent fear? No. “Of course, it’s still a good idea to make sure the seat is clean, or clean it off,” says Dr. Jeffrey Lederman, attending infectious diseases physician at Sound Shore Medical Center in New Rochelle. But you acquire these particular illnesses through intimate, one-on-one contact. So just remember, the “ST” in “STD” stands for “sexually transmitted,” not “skeevy toilet.”

12. Chocolate Gives You Acne

Good news: There’s no need to give up your dark (or milk) pleasure for your skin’s sake, says Dr. Neil S. Goldberg, a dermatologist in private practice in Bronxville and White Plains. “Diet has nothing to do with pimples—they’re the result of genetic predisposition, hormones, stress, or some combination of those things,” he explains. And, just FYI, while washing your face may keep it clean, it won’t make it clearer. “All the soap in the world,” says Dr. Goldberg, “won’t get rid of a single pimple.”

13. EATING AT NIGHT MAKES YOU FAT

It’s true that you are what you eat—but not when you eat, says Dr. Eric Small, a sports-medicine and fitness specialist in Mount Kisco. “You have to look at your total intake of calories over a twenty-four-hour period, and make sure it’s in line with the calories you’ve expended,” he explains.

14. READING IN DIM LIGHT HURTS YOUR EYES

No, it’s definitely not fun to try to plow through Twilight at twilight, but don’t worry that it’ll damage your peepers. “Reading in low light is no more harmful to your eyes than listening to soft music is to your ears,” says Dr. Bruce Gordon, an ophthalmologist at Westchester Eye Associates in White Plains. Of course, adequate illumination will make you a more eager reader—making a good light bulb a bright idea.

15. CRACKING YOUR KNUCKLES GIVES YOU ARTHRITIS IN YOUR HANDS

None of the limited research that’s been done on this shows a link, reports Dr. Elizabeth Reinitz, a rheumatologist in private practice at Scarsdale Medical Group in Harrison. But that doesn’t mean you should get crackin’: in a few small studies, some people who frequently indulged in this annoying habit ended up with stretched ligaments, “which can diminish the strength of your grip,” Dr. Reinitz cautions. (In case you’re wondering what makes the noise, there’s something called synovial fluid in your joints. Pulling your knuckles allows a bubble to form in the fluid, and then burst.)

16. IF YOUR MAMMOGRAM IS CLEAR, YOU DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT BREAST CANCER

“Mammograms will miss ten percent of cancers,” says Dr. Helen Pass, an assistant professor of clinical surgery at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, working out of Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville. “So even if yours is clear, never ignore it if you have a symptom, such as a lump or nipple discharge.” It may merit further examination. And, BTW, don’t assume you can’t get breast cancer because none of your relatives ever have. “Actually, only about ten percent of breast cancer in women is due to a significant family history,” says Dr. Pass.

17. SKIN CANCER ALWAYS HAPPENS AT THE SITE OF SUN EXPOSURE

“Malignant melanomas are cancers of your pigment cells, and you have those cells everywhere on your body,” says Dr. Andrew Bronin, a dermatologist at Greenwich Hospital and associate clinical professor in the department of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine. “In my more than thirty years of practice, I have found malignant melonomas all over the body, both in skin exposed and non-skin exposed areas.”

18. Osteoporosis Makes Your Teeth Weak

This disease, which causes bones to become porous, can do a lot of things to your body, from making you shorter to leaving you prone to fractures. But be glad for one thing: it doesn’t change your chompers, assures Dr. John Cinguina, a dentist in Scarsdale. ”If you’re deficient in calcium, your body will remove it from your long bones, like the ones in your arms and legs—those are always changing and being regenerated,” he explains.

19. GREEN MUCUS MEANS YOU’VE GOT AN INFECTION

“Only an infection in the sense that you have a cold, most likely,” says Dr. Jose Munoz, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center. It’s very common, he says, for mucus to darken in the middle of the illness—“it’s a progression, sort of like a bruise changes colors,” he explains. Antibiotics won’t speed up your recovery; instead, rely on cold comforts like drinking enough fluids and using saline drops to loosen the congestion. Unless you’re producing mucus beyond days 10 to 12 of your misery (which may indicate early sinusitis), matters will simply have to run their course.

20. IF YOU NEED TO CLEAR YOUR THROAT A LOT, OR HAVE POST-NASAL DRIP OR VOICE CHANGES, YOU HAVE ALLERGIES OR A SINUS PROBLEM

Truth is, “most of these symptoms are caused by a condition called Laryngopharyngeal Reflux Disease, or LPR,” says Dr. Craig H. Zalvan, medical director of the Institute for Voice and Swallowing Disorders at Phelps Memorial Hospital Center. LPR occurs when stomach acids and enzymes backflow into the throat and voice box. Although patients often are misdiagnosed, a good specialist ought to be able to pinpoint the problem by conducting tests to look for inflammation and changes to the voice box and throat. Luckily, LPR is treatable with diet, lifestyle changes, medication, and, as a last resort, surgery.

21. BOTOX MAKES YOU LOOK LIKE A BOT

Okay, so we’ve all seen our share of bad Botox jobs by now, but “an expert injector can give you beautifully shaped eyebrows without lowering them and avoid freezing your forehead,” says Dr. Rhoda Narins, a clinical dermalogic surgeon at White Plains Hospital Center and clinical professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine. She can also treat your neck, chin puckering, crow’s feet, and puppet lines,” Choose someone with plenty of experience.

22. VITAMIN E HELPS SCARS HEAL

While vitamin E has many health benefits, making scars disappear or even fade isn’t one of them, says Dr. Tae Ho Kim, director of pediatric plastic and craniofacial surgery at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center. “A scar needs to go through its whole healing process,” he says. “People smear vitamin E gel on it and they think that’s why it’s getting better, but really, it’s improving on its own as time goes by.” How long it takes for a scar to heal depends on what caused it, and its location on your body. “The face tends to heal better than the shoulder, for instance, but no one knows why,” Dr. Kim notes. Stubborn or particularly visible scars can sometimes be minimized through other treatments, including compression, cortisone injections, and silicone gel.

Deborah Skolnik, a Scarsdale resident, is a senior editor at Parenting magazine and the mother of two children who are forbidden to swim less than 30 minutes after they’ve eaten.

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