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Old wives’ tales

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

Medical myths and misconceptions, and what happens when they go from harmless to harmful by Abigail Joyce

As a child, did you ever hear the phrase, “Don’t go outside with wet hair, or you’ll catch a cold”? Or perhaps, “Eat your carrots – they’ll help you see in the dark.” I regarded these sentiments as fact for many years, until I started studying science and began to ask the question that strikes dread into the hearts of parents worldwide: “Why?”

Firstly, let’s clear up a deep-rooted misconception: you cannot catch a cold from going outside on a cold day with wet hair. Colds are caused by numerous strains of viruses, predominantly coronaviruses and rhinoviruses, which can be transmitted via airborne or direct contact. So, unless you step out into weather so cold that you develop hypothermia, your immune system will not be in any way impaired by a chilly breeze. In reality, the correlation between cold weather and colds most likely stems from the tendency for people to take shelter from the elements indoors. This puts them in close proximity to others who may carry a virus to which their immune system is not resistant, and thus are more likely to succumb to the infection.

In contrast, carrots actually can help you see in the dark, to a certain extent. Carrots contain vitamin A, also known as retinol, that is involved in the synthesis of rhodopsin. Rhodopsin is a pigment found in the rod cells of the retina, which detect light and assist in an individual's ability to see in low-light environments. However, this is only relevant when an individual is in a state of night blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency and requires increased concentrations of said vitamin to return visual function to a healthy level. In short, carrots cannot give you night vision. Sorry.

While we are young, the implications of these misconceptions are generally harmless and have little to no impact on our lives or well-being. The issues arise when these beliefs become a more widespread societal issue amongst adults.

The “anti-vax” movement – a growing trend of vaccination hesitancy, predominantly among parents – has been a topic of huge controversy for many years, but has recently become more prevalent in the media. What has also become alarmingly apparent is the increasing number of cases of entirely preventable diseases, especially in young children, thus putting them in unnecessary danger.

As emphasised by numerous medical professionals, the importance of vaccinations stems from herd immunity. This is the idea that if more people are protected and vaccinated from a disease, it results in fewer opportunities for the illness to spread to those that are unable to get vaccinated (due to allergies or suffering from severe immunodeficiency). However, the issue with vaccinations nowadays is not herd immunity but rather herd mentality. Many concerned parents are denying their children important medical treatments on the basis of a small number of scientific papers falsely claiming the adverse effects of the process. Recently, several papers have focused on the erroneous link between vaccines and autism, which has not only caused increased panic and reluctance regarding the vaccine, but has also exacerbated the negative stigma and ignorance surrounding autism and those with the condition. Most concerningly, the World Health Organization has now listed vaccine hesitancy as being one of the top ten threats to global health in 2019.

In conclusion, scientific fact can be misconstrued to produce something as small as a white lie, to something as dangerous as inaccurate publications and exaggerated media reports. These could cause people to develop mistrust in evidence and proven medical practices and begin to unravel many positive, societal advancements that have been made in recent years.  This could have catastrophic consequences, as it could allow the increased prevalence and spread of easily preventable diseases.

From Issue 19


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