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by Anna Trevelyan

5 Strange health myths – busted

“Oh he definitely doesn’t need antibiotics as his snot isn’t green” a friend recently said to me. I must have given her a blank look as she went on to say that her mother told her that nasal discharge is ‘normal’ if it’s clear or yellow, but that a (specifically bacterial) infection is indicated by a green colour. Like a sort of bogey traffic light system. If only it were that easy. 

I began to think about all the other unusual old wives’ tales that many of us non-medical people hold in our heads, with little to no scientific evidence to back them up. So I put five common health myths to five willing healthcare professionals to answer these for us, once and for all.

A short note before I divulge the below – this article is not intended to offer medical advice, and if you have any queries about a medical condition please do speak to your own doctor. But I was intrigued, and somewhat entertained, by the responses from these senior clinical oracles who told me some of the common medical misconceptions which crop up every now and again and may momentarily make them smile behind their masks.

  1. Treatment for ‘shock’ doesn’t involve cups of tea:

Haematology Consultant, Dr Laura Smith, often wonders when watching the news and a presenter states ‘they were treated for shock’ after receiving some bad news. “What a patient means and what a doctor means are very different”, Smith says.

Dr Sanjay Patel, Clinical Research Fellow, says “The NHS definition for shock is that it’s a life-threatening condition that occurs when the circulatory system fails to provide enough oxygenated blood to the body and, as a result, deprives the vital organs of oxygen. It’s a very serious situation.” Nothing to do with having to sit down and have a cuppa when you’ve received a huge gas bill then? “Emotional shock, or being shocked, is very different and the media commonly mistake the two, probably to make the story seem more interesting. But to me and my team, it makes a big difference.”

  1. Your epiglottis doesn’t hang down:

It’s a common misconception that your epiglottis is the dangly piece of skin at the back of your throat. But Dr Ian Pidgeon, GP Partner, clears this one up: “That’s your uvula. Your epiglottis is a small valve, or flap of skin, at the back of your throat. It closes over your airway to stop you from choking. You usually cannot see your epiglottis.”

  1. Is it really an allergy?

We’ve likely all heard people say something along the lines of “I’m slightly allergic to gluten”, or “I’m allergic to antibiotics as they make my stomach hurt”. But allergies are very different to intolerances and expected side effects from medicines. 

Dr Martin Cole, Consultant Anaesthetist, told me: “Patients often say they are allergic to things when, in fact, this is not always an allergy but a side effect of the drug. Common examples are ‘morphine makes me itch’, or ‘penicillin gave me a rash as a child’. I’ve even had patients tell me they are allergic to adrenaline, which is what I’d need to give you in case of anaphylaxis if you had a true allergy, so it’s important to make the distinction.”

Dr Patel agrees: “It’s vitally important to know if a patient has a real, life-threatening allergy or simply an intolerance or previous [mild] side effect to a drug. If you have a diagnosed allergy and carry an EpiPen, please consider wearing a medical alert band in case of being admitted to hospital. If you’re simply worried because you once developed thrush after having antibiotics – a common side effect – please talk to your physician about the pros and cons of taking this medicine.”

  1. Wet hair, colds and being cold:

“ You’ll catch your death of cold going out with wet hair” – we’ve all heard this one. But is there any truth in it? Dr Pidgeon says “A cold is a viral illness, generally spread through coughs and sneezes. You have to be exposed to somebody with the virus in order to catch it. Being cold or going out with wet hair does not mean you will catch a viral infection. Colds do however happen more often in winter because we are often indoors a lot with the windows closed and with less ventilation.” 

So there we go. Definitely another myth.

  1. “Smoking helps with stress”:

It is commonly thought that smoking helps to relieve stress. But is this true? Gail Stringer, Public Health Practitioner and smoking cessation expert tells me: “It is often said that smoking relieves stress – but it’s a myth! Smoking cigarettes causes an addiction to nicotine. When a smoker hasn’t smoked for a while they go into nicotine withdrawal, which makes them feel stressed and uncomfortable, so when they have their next cigarette they relieve their craving and it makes them feel better momentarily – giving the impression that smoking relieves stress.” In fact, the NHS website states that ‘Stopping smoking not only improves your physical health but also is proven to boost your mental health and wellbeing. Quitting can improve mood, and help relieve stress, anxiety and depression.’

One final lesson on behalf of my multi-coloured-snot-theory friend (and this is one I can answer as a writer – I have no medical training but a strong understanding of SEO and how it works): do not try to self-diagnose based on your own internet research. “The colour of your sputum is not a reliable clinical indicator used by health professionals about whether a patient needs antibiotics or not”, says Dr Pidgeon. In short – see your doctor if you are unwell. Dr Patel confirms: “We will never laugh at you for coming to see us for something you may consider small. If it worries you, it’s worth a look. There are no questions too silly, or too embarrassing to ask.” Well, that’s a relief – I have plenty more where that came from.

By Anna Trevelyan

I'm a freelance writer, voice-over artist, broadcaster and mum of two. I've worked in the media for over 10 years, since graduating in Drama & Theatre in 2006, with jobs ranging from children's TV gunge maker to late night love songs radio presenter, script writer and penguin conservation blogger. I'm passionate about women's health, good food, reading and writing for fun, and being an eternal optimist.