Last updated: February 20. 2013 3:05AM - 1127 Views

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Who needs a flu shot when you can leave a peeled onion out in your home?

After all, it will collect bacteria and other toxins from the air and keep you from getting sick.


If only that were true, the world would be a healthier, albeit more odoriferous, place.

But that story, more viral than a flu bug itself, should have been put the rest. Instead, it's still spreading through cyberspace this much-talked-about flu season, despite multiple medical experts debunking it.

There are 10 different ways I could laugh at that, Dr. Richard Huntington, a family practitioner at Geisinger's Kistler Clinic in Wilkes-Barre, said of the well-traveled onion story.

Even without a depressor, he held his tongue further on that myth, which is just one of a number of health myths people often blindly accept.

Dr. Maureen Litchman, a family practitioner and director of Wilkes-Barre General Hospital's Wilkes-Barre Academic Medicine in Kingston, said the onion myth has a historic reference. It stems from the influenza epidemic of the early 20th century and is part of a story about a doctor who visited a farm family who claimed having the sliced onions in the house kept them from getting the flu. The doctor looked at one of the blackened onions under a microscope and saw germs, the story goes.

People have a tendency to tie things together when there isn't a relationship, Litchman said.

You'll catch your death

Many a mother has told her child not to go outside without a coat in the cold weather or – heaven forbid — with wet hair. That's how you catch pneumonia, the mothers said.

But Huntington said that myth stems from an old wives' tale that reasons that colds come from the cold.

Viruses spread more easily when we are all cooped up together in the wintertime, Huntington said. Temperature has relatively little to do with it other than viruses come this time of year.

He added that wet hair does not seem to change anything, wind blowing into ears does not cause an ear infection, and lighting candles and blowing the smoke into an ear — another myth akin to a wives' tale — does not cure an infection.

The more unusual or obscure beliefs come from a time before medical science, Huntington said. He said some people from other cultures place a heated spoon on an ill person's back. Nowadays, he said, it's especially disturbing to see this method used on children.

Litchman, also noting the lack of basis for the cold cause theories, said, We know colds are caused by viruses.

About 200, in fact, she said.

Feed a cold, starve a fever

Or is it feed a fever and starve a cold?

Huntington has heard it the latter way. But don't worry about which is correct.

You need to eat, the M.D. said. You need fluids or you can get dehydrated. Starvation does not offend a virus.

He added that you shouldn't starve any disease, short of certain intestinal diseases.

He recommended fluids, rest and chicken soup (watch the sodium amount), but not azithromycin, known commonly as Zithromax, or Z-Pak, for a common cold or flu.

With chicken soup, the warmth can help a sore throat, and the salt can numb a sore throat and ease a cough. For children, dark honey can be as effective to help coughs due to infection, the doctor said.

Litchman said that whether you have a cold or a fever, you should drink plenty of fluids. For a fever, it will prevent dehydration; for a cold, it helps break up the mucus and secretions.

Knuckle-busting myths

You've also probably heard that you'll get arthritis if you keep cracking your knuckles. But that has been disproven plenty of times as well.

Huntington said the rapid transfer of synovial fluid from one spot to another causes the cracking noise. It does not cause the disease, Huntington said.

Litchman said the synovial fluid contains different gas particles.

When you crack your knuckles, it releases, causing the popping or cracking sound.

It also might startle you to know that startling someone to get rid of their hiccups doesn't work. Nor does consuming a spoonful of sugar, the physician said.

He said hiccups stop if you wait them out, but if they continue for hours or day, medications can help.

Maybe if you eat something

… But then, shouldn't you wait an hour before going for a swim?

Not really, the doctor advised. He said some people may get cramps if they swim right after eating. That's because the stomach is demanding more blood flow.

There's no proven timeline any physician can tell you about swimming or food, Huntington said.

Litchman said a study showed less than 1 percent of drowning victims had eaten right before swimming, though a significant number had alcohol in their system.

But she noted eating a large meal right before swimming could cause some stomach cramps.

Both physicians said herbal remedies may vary in effectiveness, but Litchman cautioned that herbal treatments are not under the purview of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Also, equal amounts of an herb are not guaranteed with each dose, and there also may be a placebo effect — patients may feel better just because they think the treatment is working.

Herbal medicines actually do have a place in people's welfare, but they are understudied, Litchman said.

And a myth that Litchman said is most timely now is the belief that people get the flu from the flu shot.

Those who do get sick after a flu shot may have been getting a cold anyway, Litchman said, noting it takes two weeks for the body to form enough antibodies in response to the shot.

Also, the flu shot is not 100 percent guaranteed against getting the flu, though this year's vaccine is the best in years with a 65 percent to 70 percent effectiveness, Litchman said.

But to have a better chance of avoiding the flu, you should use common sense and stay away from crowded places and people who are sick; if you're sick, stay home, and wash your hands frequently at least 15 to 30 seconds, Litchman advised.

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