True or false - old wives' tales about health

Jane Garton ( 15 June 2015 )

From counting sheep to copper bracelets and chewing parsley, we examine the facts behind some medical myths.

Sleeping on your back encourages snoring


"Gravity pulls your tongue to the back of your throat and blocks the airways. As the air struggles to get down into the lungs your tongue vibrates up and down, which can result in a cacophony of grunts," explains Marianne Davey, co-founder of the British Snoring & Sleep Apnoea Association. It is far better to sleep on your side. Of course, there is no guarantee you will stay in this position but it can help to start off the night lying on your side with your arms wrapped round a pillow.

Copper bracelets help soothe arthritis


Although many people with arthritis wear copper bracelets, there is no scientific evidence to support this one. "Research shows people with arthritis do have enough copper in their bodies, so it is difficult to understand what effects these bangles can have," says Jane Tadman, spokesperson for the Arthritis Research Campaign. "It could be the placebo affect at work in people who report that their pain has lessened when wearing a copper bracelet," she adds.

Toothpaste can send spots packing


"Toothpaste is a great emergency measure for dabbing on a spot overnight if you've nothing else," says beauty expert Vicci Bentley. Many toothpastes contain menthol, which cools and soothes inflammation; antibacterial agents, which can fight infection; and detergents, which can dry out spots. These ingredients are bad for skin in the long term, however. "So if your skin starts to feel irritated, leave the toothpaste - and the spot - alone," warns Vicci.

Pull a grey hair out and you can expect two in its place


"You can expect to get one back but not two," says Marilyn Sherlock of the Institute of Tricologists. "It takes about three months for a new hair to grow and another three before you notice it, so if you are going grey, by the time the one you pulled out grows back a few more will have appeared nearby, making it look as if two have grown in its place."

Eating spicy foods can give you an ulcer


"They may give you indigestion or acid reflux but spicy foods won’t give you an ulcer, although they may irritate one you already have," explains GP Rob Hicks. Most stomach ulcers are caused by an infection from the bacterium helicobacter pylori or by an overuse of anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen or aspirin.

Sitting too close to the TV can damage your eyesight


"Getting up close and personal with the TV screen may give you a headache or make your eyes tired, but it won't cause permanent damage to your sight," says Dr Susan Blakeney, optometric adviser to the College of Optometrists. She also recommends watching TV with the lights on, rather than off, as watching in the dark is more likely to cause headaches and tired eye symptoms.

Eating boiled eggs can make you constipated


"Any high-fat, low-fibre food such as boiled eggs could contribute to constipation, but you would have to eat an awful lot to make you constipated," says GP Rob Hicks. A lack of fibre and fluid in your diet, too much stress and not answering nature’s call are more common causes of constipation.

Cloves help relieve toothache


Cloves and clove oil contain sedative properties that can help numb the tooth temporarily, says a spokesman for the British Dental Health Foundation. But cloves should only be used in an emergency. "If clove oil runs on to the gums, it can burn them and can even lead to ulceration, which can turn out to be more painful than the toothache itself. The only answer to toothache is to book yourself into the dentist as soon as you can."

Chewing parsley gets rid of garlic breath


"Parsley has been used for thousands of years to counteract garlic breath," says herbalist Dee Atkins. "Parsley contains compounds that counteract the high sulphur content of garlic which causes the unpleasant odour," she adds.

It may be no coincidence that many garlic recipes also contain parsley, but it is not enough just to sprinkle in a teaspoon of parsley when cooking. To get the full effect, you need to chew at least a sprig of fresh parsley, preferably more.

Sitting on a hot radiator or cold wall gives you piles


"Neither will be very comfortable, but they won’t cause piles," says Dr Rob Hicks. Piles are normally triggered by pregnancy, or by straining as a result of constipation or childbirth and are never the consequence of temperature changes on the nether regions.

Counting sheep makes you go to sleep


"Anything that is calming can help you get to sleep, and that could include counting sheep," says Elizabeth Scott from the London Sleep Centre. But stick to counting the same two or three, rather than going up into the hundreds as it is the regular rhythm of repetition that lulls the brain to sleep.

Cleaning your ears with cotton buds can make you go deaf


"You may not realise just how easy it is to damage your ear canal or eardrum by poking things such as a cotton bud into your ear," says Angela King, Senior Audiology Specialist, RNID. "Earwax is part of the ear's natural protection and self-cleaning process. Wiping the outside of your ear with a facecloth should be all that's required. If you get a build-up of wax that blocks your ear you should see your GP, who can remove it safely."

Chewing on bread can stop you crying when peeling onions


The tearjerker in onions is a compound known as propanthial S-oxide, which is released as a gas during chopping. This irritates the eye and stimulates the tear ducts. Putting a slice of bread in your mouth with half of it sticking out is thought to ‘catch’ the fumes before they reach the eye. Other popular remedies include putting a silver spoon in your mouth, wearing a pair of swimming goggles and dripping some vinegar on to the chopping board before cutting the onion.

Sharing toothbrushes spreads disease


More than 50% of us would be happy to share our toothbrush, according to a national survey carried out by the British Dental Association (BDA). But you do so at your peril. Hundreds of different bacteria and viruses live in our mouths and sharing a brush can spread these to others.

The virus might be something relatively harmless, such as a cold sore, but in extreme cases more serious infections such as hepatitis B could be passed on if one of the toothbrush users is a carrier. The message from the BDA is: ‘Change your toothbrush every three months and keep it for your teeth only’.

Swallowed chewing gum takes seven years to digest


"It is never a good idea to swallow gum but there is no truth in this saying or in another popular belief that it sticks to your ribs," says Dr Rob Hicks. "It may be indigestible but once in your stomach it loses its stickiness and is eliminated in the same way and at the same rate as other food."

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