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A look at Modern Medical Mythology

Aired September 18, 2004 - 08:30   ET




In the world of medical news, modern mythology can overshadow the truth.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My wife tells me all of the time that if I cross my eyes, they're going to get stuck that way and I won't be able to undo that, is that true.

GUPTA: Old wives' tales like these are often spread by word of mouth, but sometimes the truth can be sacrificed online. Myths spread on the e-mail and the Internet. We'll give you some sources to track down your own answers, but by all means...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Don't sit close to your TV or you will go blind.

GUPTA: We've got some prescriptions to short through the tall tales in short order in this edition of HOUSE CALLS.


GUPTA: Good morning, and welcome to HOUSE CALL, I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Today, we're coming to you from the newsroom.

The Internet is just one of the many sources of medical myths circulating in the information age. But you don't even need to log on to find an abundance of questionable medical advice and half-truths.

CNN's Holly Firfer takes a look at some common health mistakes you may be making everyday.


HOLLY FIRFER, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If you're taking birth control pill, you're always safe from pregnancy, right? Well, not quite.

DR. ERICA BROWNFIELD, EMORY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE: There are certain antibiotic, particularly penicillins, tetracyclines, some of the cephalosporins and your also on the birth control pill, that hormone pill becomes less effective and, so you want to have a backup method so you don't get pregnant.

FIRFER: It's okay if you floss really hard and your gums bleed because it will clean out the bacteria, wrong says Dr. Brownfield.

BROWNFIELD: Problem is you can cut into the gum and you can expose the root of the tooth, and by doing that you can have problems with the nerve again, damage to your tooth, pain, bleeding. But flossing is important. So you should do it to remove plaque and bacteria.

FIRFER: Take your allergy medicine first thing in the morning, not always.

BROWNFIELD: Everybody has different allergy symptoms and allergens can be at all times during the day. So the common-sense thing to do is figure out when your allergy symptoms are worse and make sure and take your meditation a few hours before then.

FIRFER: Can't hear? Clean your ears out with a cotton swab, Dr. Brownfield, says no.

BROWNFIELD: You can actually move the wax further into the ear, causing problems with wax impaction and decrease hearing. And other thing is if you push too hard with a Q-tip or any kind of object, you can put a hole in your eardrum, which can be harmful.

FIRFER: Too tired it take your contacts out, oops.

BROWNFIELD: Don't want to wear it for more than eight hours. In particular, you don't want to wear them when your eyes are closed because it sets up a risk of infection and possibly blindness.

FIRFER: And that's just for starters.

In Atlanta, I'm Holly Firfer.


GUPTA: Well, being a little skeptical of long-held truths and keeping your eyes open, can always also help to bunk your own medical misinformation. Of course finding reliable sources is important as well.

We even have the help of Dr. Neil Shulman. He's from Emory University to help answer you questions today. Should point out as well, Doctor Shulman is the associate professor at the Emory School, the author of several books, very good ones, and wrote the screenplay for the movie "Doc Hollywood."

Thanks very much for joining us.

DR. NEIL SHULMAN, PROFESSOR, EMORY UNIV.: Thanks for inviting me.

GUPTA: One of the things in your movie, you had a young doctor, you had a old doctor. The old doctor was sort of trying to impart his age-old wisdom to the young doctor.

SHULMAN: Yes, the old doctor knows a lot of stuff, the young doctor doesn't. But young doctor knows the new stuff, so it's a mix.

GUPTA: And we're going to try to distinguish some of what is real, some of what is mythology as well. We sent a camera crew out to find out what people are curious about when it comes to this arena. Several questions like this one.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cracking your knuckles, what does that do to your knuckles, does that destroy your joints?


GUPTA: I hear this all of the time and sometimes I crack my knuckles.

Does it do anything bad, long term, do you think?

SHULMAN: In -- while consulting some rheumatologist...

GUPTA: Joint doctors.

SHIELDS:: Joint doctors. They basically said, no.

GUPTA: Cracking will?

SHULMAN: A random sample -- well, it's basically the synovial fluid, you have some fluid in there that sort of keeps the joints lubricated well, and that fluid sort of pops out and helps make the noise. But it shouldn't create any damage.

GUPTA: What about arthritis?

We have got e-mail questions about that as well, long-term arthritis?

SHULMAN: The feeling was, no. Now, I will say, nobody's done a randomized prospective double-blind study on that.

GUPTA: Right.

SHULMAN: But I would say this, that anything that bothers you, if you do it repeatedly, don't continue to do it.

GUPTA: It seems like there is some wear and tear on the body when do you that, so that's probably good advice. Let's keep moving along. Another popular question from viewers had to do with eating your vegetables. Sounds like a no-brainer there. You should always eat your vegetables. This viewer is a little disgusted about that, though.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They used to say eat a lot of carrot, it's good for your eyes. That's a lot of baloney, as you can see I am wearing glasses.


GUTPA: So what about it, carrots?

SHULMAN: Carrots have good vitamin, vitamin A.

GUPTA: Just something my mom just told me me?

SHULMAN: No, I think it is good for you. Now, if you eat too many carrots you could turn into a rabbit. But, seriously, it's good for you, but it's not the cure-all, end-all. So you could end up wearing glasses. I ate rabbits and carrots and still have -- and still wear glasses. But I think, you know, it's a healthy vitamin, and can be healthy to protect your eyes. But it's not the solution. You still need good eye care.

GUPTA: It's not going to improve your vision. It may maintain it from getting worse is that right?

SHULMAN: It could, yes.

GUPTA: But don't eat too many you said as well?

SHULMAN: Yes, you can overdose on vitamin a.

GUPTA: And so -- so you may turn orange as well perhaps.


GUPTA: Let's move onto an e-mail that also had to do with keeping your eyes healthy.

Janet of Orlando asked, "Does sitting" too "close to the television harm your vision?"

SHULMAN: And I think, you know, just from a practical standpoint, if you shine light, bright light in your eyes or you're looking at the sun directly -- at the sun, you could do damage potentially to your retina.

And if it's just as easy to sit further back, why not do that and not take a risk even if it's the computer screen?

GUPTA: The computer's a good point as well. But you think long- term damage to the back of the eyes from this or...

SHULMAN: I think, I'm not familiar with any sophisticated double-blind studies to answer that question. But I will say that from a practical standpoint it's better to play it safe.

GUPTA: Stay a little bit further away and probably not watch as much television as most people do as well. SHULMAN: Unless it's CNN.

GUPTA: Unless it's CNN, and this show in particular!

Let's get to another e-mail now. This question coming from a teenager.

Molly from Arizona asked me, "Does eating chocolate make you break out?"

She's 13, she says.

SHULMAN: A random sample of dermatologist says, that no.

GUPTA: Really.

SHULMAN: Now, kids eat a lot of chocolate. And they get a lot of acne because you're going through this hormone stage. There has been occasional cases where a kid has directly found eating the chocolate, they got the acne. Not eating the chocolate they didn't. And maybe there's some rare, rare cases where that happens. But generally it's thought, no.

GUPTA: Is it the sugar, what is it in the chocolate.

SHULMAN: It might be. It's somehow or another the ingredients of the chocolate interfacing with hormones in the body.

GUPTA: Interesting. So, I mean, another good reason not to eat too much chocolate, probably?


GUPTA: That's good advice. Before we go to the break, ask you about the hat?

SHULMAN: Yes, well, you know, I sort of did "Doc Hollywood," but I've recently made a new movie called "Who Nose?" W-H-O N-O-S-E dot com. And this is my insignia in that show, it's a romantic comedy. And I have found that it also makes me look better because you see a lot of hair here. This is real hair but on top of my head there might not be a lot of hair here and this is real hair. But on top of my head, there might not be a lot of hair, you'll never know.

GUPTA: "Who Nose" is the movie. Look for that as well. Many of your e-mail questions coming up about medical myths. All of that straight ahead.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Plus the latest miracle cure or bogus health scare usually has its roots in cyberspace. Smoothing the truth out of your e-mail inbox. But first take our "Daily Dose" quiz.

Your mother always told you, if you swallow chewing gum, it would stay in your stomach for seven years. Is that true or false? (END VIDEO CLIP)



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Checking the "Daily Dose" quiz we asked, if you swallow chewing gum, it would stay in your stomach for seven years, true or false.

The answer is false. Chewing gum will usually pass through your digestive system without sticking your inside together like your mother said.


GUPTA: Welcome back to HOUSE CALL. We're in the newsroom to talk about medical myths. Some of the worst medical rumors and hoaxes are spread through the Internet and of course spam e-mail as well. Here's some ways to make sure you are not misled about health information online. First, find out who runs the Web site or sent the e-mail. Credible Web sites should make it clear who they are. Second, what is the source of information, does it come from a respected doctor, hospital or research facility. And finally, the Federal Trade Commission investigates complaints about false or misleading complaints posted on the Internet.

Their web site is

Joining us again to answer your questions about medical myths and right now we're going talk specifically about medical myths that have been spread online is, Dr. Neil Shulman from Emory University, and "Doc Hollywood" I should say as well.

Let's get started with an e-mail.

First of all, Kirk of North Carolina ask, "Are there any negative long-term effects from using aluminum foil or aluminum cookware when preparing food or any consuming products such as antacids or deodorants, that contain aluminum by-products?"

Lots of concerns about aluminum?

SHULMAN: Yes. And this was some suggestions that both Alzheimer's and kidney disease might be affected by aluminum, but further investigation of that has not proven to show anything.

GUPTA: So -- and then I heard about the deodorant, some possibility breast cancer as well. Have you heard that?

SHULMAN: Yes. And the aluminum thing -- what happens is sometimes the study's done looking at another issue. And then they find well, there might be some correlation just accidentally between, say aluminum and something. And then they investigate that much further on -- in other studies or look back on other data and find out that it's not confirmed and that was the situation. GUPTA: So fair to say aluminum not linked Alzheimer's, not linked to cancer?

SHULMAN: As of right now, I think the best scientific data...

GUPTA: Shows that.

SHULMAN: ... shows that.

GUPTA: OK, well lets keep going there. Our next e-mail is also about cancer.

Joyce in New York asking, "Do carbonated beverages cause cancer of the stomach or esophagus?"

I was always fascinated by, if you took a penny, a dirty penny put it in the a can of coke, it would clean it off. There's a lot acid in some of these beverages.

SHULMAN: Yes, and you know, this is a time when it's really important to say this. That just because we haven't done a study to show that something is dangerous doesn't mean that it's safe. So you can use your own personal logic as well.

GUPTA: All right, another e-mail question coming in about cancer again.

Laurence in Chicago asking, "I've heard that having X-rays can increase the" chance "of developing cancer. Should I stop all routine X-rays?"

CT-SCANs give off a lot of radiation, and we know that. But what about just plain X-rays.

SHULMAN: Yes. I mean, I think you should always let your doctor know if you've had a lot of X-rays. If you're going to a whole lot of different doctors and each doctor doesn't know and they're repeating x-Rays, that can be dangerous, and particularly for you pregnant.

GUPTA: And doctors usually ask or the techs usually ask if your pregnant or could possibly be pregnant to let them know about that.

SHULMAN: That's a really good point. Could possibly be pregnant.

GUPTA: Right.

SHULMAN: Because the early stages are the ones...

GUPTA: Most problematic.


GUPTA: OK, lets keep going here, from the strange but true file, medical advice that sounds too weird to be right. That's coming up with Dr. Neil Shulman. Stay tuned. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Plus, remedies for the common cold.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My mother used to have during the winter us wear a string around the neck with a sock and inside of the sock was a piece of garlic.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Will that really cures what ails you? Details ahead.

But first, here's a tip from "The Bod Squad."


GUPTA: Losing weight, it's one of the hardest things to do after pregnancy. Most common question, how quickly can you get back to exercise?

ELAINE LOYACK, PRENATAL FITNESS INSTRUCTOR: We would like to see new moms after their first week six-week postpartum check up.

GUPTA: Most moms gain an average of 30 pounds during pregnancy.

HEIDI MURKOFF, "WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOUR EXPECTING": It took you nine months to gain you weight. It might take you at least nine months to take it off.

GUPTA: Other tips, start slow. Only simple exercise during the first week or two. A slow walk can get blood flowing to help heal C- section incisions or other (UNINTELLIGIBLE) damage. No ab crunches, they might hurt you. Instead, focus on pelvis tilts, abdominal compressions and slow belly breathing to strengthen and tone your middle.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Take a drink of that water mom!

GUPTA: Stay hydrated especially if you are nursing. And eat sensibly, strenuous dieting should be avoiding.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN, Atlanta.



GUPTA: Well, we've been talking about medical myths and old wives' tale, but there are strange but true remedies that really work. To help us work through those, Dr. Neil Shulman who brought along a couple of unique medical facts.

First of all, masking tape or duct tape removes warts, does that really work?

SHULMAN: Yes. At least, let's put it this way, there are two ways of discovering things. One is through doing it with half of the people and not doing it with the other half and seeing which does better. And the other is to just do it again and again and again and see if it works every time do you it. And the duct tape thing has worked that way.

GUPTA: Why does that work?

SHULMAN: You know, I don't think anybody has and absolute answer, at least, I don't.

GUPTA: Another strange but true medical fact. If you take a flash photo of a child and there's a difference in the light reflected between the two pupils there could be a tumor growing in one their eyes or behind one of their eyes.

SHULMAN: Yes, this is really important and it's something that even a lot of doctors don't know, but pediatric ophthalmologist are very aware of. If you have a little white pupil or if when you take a flash picture of a child, that light reflects that you see when you look at picture is different between the two pupil, that could be a tumor growing in the child's eye. Getting that taken care of right away could save the eye or even save the child's life. So seeing a pediatric ophthalmologist and getting them to consultation would be very important as soon as practical.

GUPTA: And that would involve just the ophthalmologist taking a look in the eye with one their devices?

SHULMAN: Yes, and doing whatever further evaluation's necessary. But let them first take a look in your eye which would be fairly simple.

GUPTA: That's an interesting piece of advice.

Our roving camera crew had found many people who had questions about some strange cold remedies. Here's a sample.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is there really any benefit in -- you know, chicken soup as a remedy for a cold?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because I used to wear it when I was a kid. It's a string with a sock and inside of the sock was garlic and that used to keep -- they presumed that the vapors used to keep the cold away from you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you take cod liver. We -- I took it when I was growing up a lot. And my mom told us that, if you take that, that you won't get a lot of colds and flu and I just wanted it find out if that was true?


GUPTA: Soup, garlic and cod liver oil, what do you think, does it actually work for the cold? SHULMAN: Well, with soup there was actually a sophisticated study done in the Miami area, where half the patients got chicken soup and half did not. And the ones who took chicken soup did not catch as much colds as those who did. However, there were studies done after that that did not confirm that data.


SHULMAN: Now, in the area and in area in Miami, I think there are a lot of Jewish grandmothers and they may have sort of -- if the researchers were their grandsons, that it might have influenced the data.

GUPTA: Skewed the date there.

SHULMAN: Yes, so you might want to do it with a little Arab community.

GUPTA: But it might just be the warm fluid, though, right?

Is that possibly what is causing the benefit?

SHULMAN: Warm fluid could definitely make you feel better. And it could actually potentially have some symptomatic effects, that's a good point.

GUPTA: Wearing garlic around your neck?

SHULMAN: Oh, garlic around your neck. Now, garlic around your neck I don't has been proven to have any real major effects in reference to catching a cold. However, from a purely rational and, you know, observation, on my part, I have noted that if you wear garlic around your neck a lot of people don't want to be around you because of the smell. And if those people don't want to be around you, and the few of them has a cold...

GUPTA: Catch fewer colds.

SHULMAN: Then you catch fewer colds.

GUPTA: OK, that may work. What about cod liver oil?

SHULMAN: Oh, cod liver oil. Now a lot of parents want their kids to have cod liver oil, everyday and it doesn't taste really good. It does scientifically have some stuff in it that might help you, like the antioxidants that could be beneficial. However, the downside is you might not get a cold but you might not like your parents either.

GUPTA: We are talking with "Doc Hollywood," and more with Dr. Neil Shulman, that's coming up straight ahead.


CHRISTY FEIG, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Internet can lead you astray with health hijinks, but there are also good online sources to debunk your own medical myths. That's straight ahead.

First a look at this week's medical headlines in this edition of "The Pulse."

Anti-depressants should bear the strongest warning label possible says a FDA committee, because of studies showing they can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts in minors. The committee asked the FDA to consider requiring drugmakers to put up black box warning label on drug information sheets given to doctors and patients.

Many older adults cut become on prescription medications to save money. But new study of Archives of Internal Medicine says, more than a third of these patients don't tell their doctors. The center suggest doctors ask their patients if they can afford their medications and help them find lower cost alternatives whenever possible.

Christy Feig, CNN.



GUPTA: Well, there are several places you can go online to debunk medical myths. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention Web site at has a whole section devoted to e-mail hoaxes. The FDA Web site at also has some e-mail on e-mail cons. And to track down false cancer scares, go to the Web site of the National Cancer Institute at

It's been a really interesting show. I have learned I lot.

SHULMAN: Yes, this has been fun, thank you.

GUPTA: You've got a final thought that you would like to share with our viewers?

SHULMAN: Well, I've got a little more information that might be helpful. I've got a hundred docs together, and we put together a book called "Your Body's Red Light Warning Signals: Medical Tips to Save Your Life."

And there are doctors from all specialties and you can just go to any area of the body and determine whether that area having a problem, a pain, an ache, could be important for pregnant women, kids, and adults. Or we have a Web site,

GUPTA: I've got to tell you, I really enjoyed the movie. I will read your book as well. Thank you so much for your time. Appreciate it, Dr. Neil Shulman.

That's all of the time we have for today, remember this the place to find the real answers to all your medical questions. Thank for watching, I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta, stay tuned now for more news on CNN.


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