Debunking 8 persistent health myths

I recently a session at the Asian American Women Leadership Conference to high school and college students about taking care of our bodies. One the topics is common health myths. Despite our best efforts at debunking them, here are 8 pervasive myths:

1. You can catch a cold from being too cold. Growing up, how many of us have heard this from well-meaning parents and grandparents? It’s easy to see how this myth came to be. People do get more colds in the winter. Going outside in the cold without proper protection isn’t particularly pleasant, and if you do it enough, might lead to a weaker immune system. However, we also know that colds are viral infections that are transmitted through viruses. You catch a cold from someone else who has a cold, not from being too cold yourself. So, to avoid catching colds, be diligent about washing your hands (though bundling up in cold weather isn’t a bad idea either).

2. You will get blind if you read in low light. If this is the case, then our ancestors will surely all have suffered from blindness! It’s not true that reading in low light leads to blindness. That said, why strain your eyes unnecessarily? If you have the choice, read in an environment with lighting that is pleasant to you.

3. In order to tan, you must burn first.This is definitely NOT true. Sunburns are potentially dangerous, and can lead to sunstroke and dehydration, not to mention skin cancer. Tanning itself carries similar risks. How much you tan depends on your skin type (there are some people who burn and never tan, for example), but you should definitely not plan to get sunburned in order to tan.

4. Muscle turns to fat if you don’t use it. Anatomically, this just isn’t the case. Muscle and fat are two different types of tissues, and one doesn’t turn into the other. However, there may be some truth overall in that if you don’t exercise, you lose your muscle mass. If you consume the same number of calories as when you were exercising, you will probably gain weight. So make sure to exercise regularly!

5. Alcohol kills brain cells. In junior high, I watched my teacher drop a rat brain into alcohol, and the alcohol seemed to eat away at the brain. So alcohol kills brain cells, right? Well, not exactly. The alcohol that you drink enters your bloodstream, and doesn’t actually attack your brain directly. Of course, there are other ways for alcohol to injure your brain: for example, binge drinking can lead to decrease in breathing and injury to your brain that way, and drinking while driving has many other dangerous effects. As with everything else, drink responsibly, and in moderation.

6. People are fat because they don’t exercise. While exercise is necessary to maintain good health, the primary contributor to being overweight is poor diet. An overweight person will have difficulty losing weight by exercise alone; a good diet with decreased calories is also necessary. Genes also play a role. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise if you want to lose weight — but make sure you also change your diet.

7. Birth control/HPV vaccine/etc leads to more sex. A myth like is testament to people using anything as “research” to support their views. It’s hard to imagine that anyone will choose to have more sex because they have better information and a few shots in their arm. A better way to think about this is that people are going to be sexually active anyway. Why not empower them with information to make good choices (i.e. birth control and sex education)? The HPV vaccine can guard against cervical cancer; why not protect our young?

8. Women need annual pap smears starting from age 18. This used to be the case, but the guidelines have been revised such that it’s recommended for women to get pap smears every three years, starting from three years after they begin sexual intercourse. This doesn’t mean that you should only see your doctor every three years; an annual woman’s visit is beneficial for a number of reasons, including checking up on your health in general and addressing other aspects of your sexual health.

Many of these myths are partially based on the truth; that’s why it’s so hard to sort them out. Yet, they have been proven time and time again, with a variety of scientific studies, to not be true.

Leana Wen is an emergency physician who blogs at The Doctor is Listening. She is the co-author of When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Prevent Misdiagnosis and Unnecessary Tests.  She can also be reached on Twitter @drleanawen.

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  • Homeless

    9. An annual exam has clinical value.

  • Trishul Tunga Reddy

    Very nice. Enjoyed reading your article.

  • Brian

    I have no idea why you’d attempt to link birth control and HPV vaccines. While it makes sense that HPV vaccines and sex education have little if any impact on the likelihood a person is going to have sex, it’s absolutely ludicrous to think that birth control doesn’t have an impact. The way ANY human being learns (and most other sentient creatures as well) is that if they do something and the benefits outweigh the consequences, they do it again. If we handed out weight loss pills then yes, people would eat more candy and chocolate cake. If we had a foolproof hangover cure then people would drink more. It’s just plain silly, and suggests an absolute lack of understanding of human nature, to believe that people wouldn’t have more sex if they weren’t worried about offspring as a result.

  • Jonathan Chen

    Why don’t you come to a cognitive impairment clinic with me and then tell the world that alcohol doesn’t damage brain cells? Have you never seen alcohol related cerebral atrophy? When/where did you go to medical school?

    • LastoftheZucchiniFlowers

      The author clearly states, “…there are other ways for alcohol to injure your brain: for example, binge drinking can lead to decrease in breathing and injury to your brain that way, and drinking while driving has many other dangerous effects. As with everything else, drink responsibly, and in moderation.” I didn’t take away that she was denying the existence of Korsakoff’s, OBS, or any other ETOH-induced dz.

  • RIchard Feinman

    Not my area of expertise but I thought rhinovirus was more stable in the cold. In any case, before you debunk the myth, it would be good to have an explanation of why “People do get more colds in the winter” beyond the substitute myth that they spend more time in doors. People always spend time indoors watching TV that’s why there’s an obesity epidemic… oh, wait, that’s a different myth.

  • Leana S. Wen MD

    Wow, lots of controversy! Thank you, all, for reading. Indeed, there are nuances to everything. Richard, regarding colds, there is a lot of debate about why there are more viruses in the winter. See this excellent article in Scientific American:

    Jonathan, as LastoftheZucchiniFlowers states, I did state that alcohol can have bad effects–and in no way am I encouraging binge drinking.

    Brian, as for the HPV vaccine, it only protects against HPV (and even then, only subsets of it). There are still many risks of unprotected sex, and studies have simply not born out that those who use birth control have sex that they wouldn’t have had otherwise (though studies do show that birth control decreases unintended pregnancies and STDs!).

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