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Is There Any Truth to Old Wives’ Tales?

October 19, 2022

By Benafsha Irani, DO

If you're like most people who grew up in the United States, you were probably given medical advice by a parent or grandparent that was rooted in an “old wives' tale.” But do any health-related old wives' tales have any medical science behind them? Let's examine a few.

WIVES' TALE: Going out in cold weather without a coat or with wet hair will lead to a cold or other illness.

This tale may have taken root in the fact that people do seem to get sick more often in the colder winter months, but weather and wet hair don't cause colds or other viruses. This is likely more due to people staying indoors together to avoid the harsh weather. Respiratory illnesses, in particular, spread more easily indoors where dry air can lower resistance to infection. Viruses such as influenza also live longer when humidity drops and indoor heaters are on. While you are outside in the cold, it's definitely beneficial to wear a coat and hat, both of which can keep your body temperature normal, which helps protect your immune system.

WIVES' TALE: Feed a fever, starve a cold.

It's not clear where this tale originated, other than people possibly having less of an appetite due to a stuffy nose or sore throat, but no illness benefits from not eating. No matter if you have a fever or cold, you should eat when you're hungry and eat as healthy as possible. But the most important thing is to stay hydrated, especially when you have a fever because sweating can cause you to lose fluids. Water is the best option, but sports drinks are also helpful for replacing electrolytes.

WIVES' TALE: Eating chicken soup can cure a cold.

While there's certainly nothing wrong with eating chicken soup when you have a cold, it won't cure your illness. Healthier versions of chicken soup (like Mom used to make) do contain a lot nutrients, including protein, vitamin C, and vitamin K, which are all good for you in general and can help boost your immune system. The steam from a hot bowl of soup can help break up secretions and reduce nasal congestion, but that's usually temporary. And the soup broth can help keep you hydrated, as long as it's not too salty.

WIVES' TALE: Taking vitamin C helps to get rid of a cold.

Similar to chicken soup, it doesn't hurt to take recommended amounts of vitamin C when you have a cold, but it won't make your illness end any sooner. Taking it daily, however, can help prevent you from catching a virus because vitamin C helps boost your immunity. Even better, you can get your daily dose of vitamin C from fruits and vegetables that are a good source for it. There's no need to overdo it, though. If you consume more than the recommended amount of vitamin C, your body simply won't retain it.

WIVES' TALE: Treat a fever with a cold bath.

When you have a fever, the last thing you need is to cool down your body. Fever helps fight off infection and the accompanying chills is your body's way of signaling that your body needs warmth, so you're much better off wrapping yourself in a warm blanket. You should absolutely never immerse yourself or a child in cold water when a fever is present, unless it has been recommended by a doctor, who will likely only suggest a cool bath to prevent febrile (fever-induced) seizures. Since fever helps fight infection, there's no need to try and lower it unless it's particularly high, in which case you can take or administer acetaminophen or ibuprofen to bring down the temperature.

WIVES' TALE: Exposure to too much loud noise can cause hearing loss.

This tale is actually true to an extent. As little as 15 minutes of loud noise, such as at a rock concert or while operating machinery, can cause temporary hearing loss or tinnitus, which is ringing in the ears. This is due to loud nose causing the eardrum to vibrate excessively and damaging the tiny hairs in the inner ear tube. Hearing usually goes back to normal within a day or two, but if you're continually exposed to loud nose, it can cause permanent hearing loss. This can also be due to listening to music at high volume while wearing headphones or earbuds.

WIVES' TALE: Reading in dim light, watching too much TV, and crossing your eyes are all bad for your eyesight.

Eyes are the subject of quite a few old wives' tales, but the truth is that none of these activities can damage your eyes. Reading in good lighting can help prevent your eyes from fatiguing too soon and can make reading easier but reading in dim light is not bad for your eyesight. While watching TV for too long or sitting too close to the TV can cause other health issues, such as being overweight because of physical inactivity, it doesn't damage your eyes. And, no matter what your mom says, if you cross your eyes, they won't stay that way. Crossed eyes can only be caused by strabismus, a condition in which the eyes are misaligned. So, go ahead and make that funny face.

Headshot of Benafsha Irani, DO

About the Author

Dr. Irani is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Kelsey-Seybold. Her clinical interests include adult medicine, children’s health, preventive medicine, and women’s health.

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