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True or False – You can catch poison ivy from someone else’s rash?

Posted on May 15, 2014

False. poison-ivy

Many people avoid spending time outdoors in the summer for fear of coming in contact with poison ivy.  I consider myself to be pretty lucky in that I’ve never had severe reactions to poison ivy.  I do spend many hours outdoors hiking, cutting wood, mountain biking, and walking to secret fishing holes.  I don’t remember ever getting poison ivy as a child, but every so often as an adult I’ll get a slight rash after exposure.  Even though my reactions tend to be what I would categorize as minor, the small spots that appear can be intensely itchy and can blister up after a few days.  Poison ivy reactions occur after coming in contact with urushiol oil on the leaves, stem, or roots of the poison ivy plant.  Since the oil is found in the stem and roots, it is possible to get a rash from poison ivy even during colder months of the year.  It is also recommended not to burn poison ivy plants as breathing or coming in contact with the smoke can lead to a reaction.  The rash that occurs after exposure can get very red, irritated, and blister up.  The blisters often break and leak fluid.  This is not a pretty sight and I can see how some might think they could spread or catch poison ivy from these rashes.  However, that is not the case.  In an article written in Dermatology Nursing, Patricia Jackson Allen writes “The rash may grow in size and development of new vesicles can occur during the first 2 weeks without additional contact with urushiol due to the allergenic response of the host.  This leads to the common believe that the serum from vesicles is allergenic.  The serum released from the vesicles is not antigenic and does not spread the allergic contact reaction.”  It is probably good practice to avoid other people’s poison ivy rashes and the fluid oozing out of them.  But in the unlikely event that should occur, you can feel confident that you won’t soon be developing a rash of your own.


Jackson Allen P: Leaves of three, let them be: if it were only that easy!  Dermatology Nursing (2006), Vol 18, pps. 236-242.

True or False – Americans have more free time today than they did in 1965?

Posted on April 24, 2014

True. imgres

We’ve all had our share of those days where we’ve felt like we couldn’t get everything accomplished that we needed to; much less have any free time.  However, research suggests that we actually have gained about five hours of free time per week as compared to the 1960’s (Robinson & Godbey, 1997).  It is interesting that even though the amount of free time we have has increased, most Americans state that they feel more rushed and they think they actually have less free time.  So, what makes up free time?  Most researchers would consider things like watching TV, listening to music, reading, hobbies, socializing, recreational activities, sports, adult education, and even religious activities as free time.  Essentially, things you do in your free time involve maximum choice on your part.  Think of free time activities as being activities that are not essential to your life or survival.  Things you might do that would not be considered free time would include sleeping, eating, grooming, taking care of your kids, housework, and working at a job that pays you wages.  Contrary to what some might believe, checking your friend’s status on Face book and watching TV are not essential to survival.  Robinson & Godbey also state that 1) middle aged, college educated, married parents, where both spouses work have the least amount of free time, 2) that people in urban areas have about one hour more per week of free time compared to those in rural areas, and 3) we have nearly 40 hours of free time per week (5 hours each weekday, 6 hours on Saturday, and over 7 hours on Sunday).  Most people overestimate how much time they spend at work and underestimate how much free time they have.  It’s not uncommon for someone to say that they are very busy and that they don’t have time for things like exercise, yet they will watch 3 or 4 hours of TV a day!


Robinson J & Godbey G: Time for Life: The Surprising ways Americans use Their Time (1997), The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA.

True or False – Wearing a tight hat leads to hair loss?

Posted on April 1, 2014

False. image40

Hair loss can be a traumatic experience for both men and women.  Right or wrong, our society places a great deal of emphasis on appearance, and many people take pride in having a thick, full head of hair.  Hair loss is common in later life, especially among men; however, many individuals start to experience hair loss in their early to mid 20’s.  The hair care industry is a multi-billion dollar industry and a significant portion of the money spent on hair care is spent on products related to hair loss.  Discussions on hair loss and baldness have been occurring for a long time.  I ran across an interesting article entitled The Prophylaxis of Baldness, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1903.  Our understanding of the cause of hair loss is much different today than it was in the early 1900’s.  It is not true that wearing a hat, even a tight hat, contributes to hair loss.  Some have speculated that this myth came about after men who entered the military noticed they started to lose their hair shortly after enlisting.  Many of these men felt their hair loss was related to wearing tight military hats and helmets.  In reality, their hair loss likely would have started to occur whether they joined the military or not.  I read a large number of scientific articles that addressed the causes of hair loss.  These articles identified factors such as genetics, skin diseases, nutrition, trauma, medications, and endocrine disorders as legitimate contributors to hair loss (there are many more).  However, not a single article mentioned the dangers of wearing hats.  An article published in Consumer Reports on Health stated “This myth may have arisen in part because people often wear hats to cover their balding heads.  And tight hats do not restrict blood flow in the scalp sufficiently to harm the hair follicles”.


Consumer Reports on Health (2007), Vol 19, pg 7.

True or False – Shaving makes hair grow back thicker?

Posted on February 26, 2014

False. image41

Many years ago when I was in middle school one of my best friends helped himself to one of his father’s razors and a can of shaving cream and started shaving his chest.  He told me that he had heard from someone in high school (always a reliable source of valid health information) that shaving causes hair to grow.  After a few weeks of shaving one to two times a day and seeing no results, he abandoned his quest to speed up the process of entering into manhood.  There are a number of interesting reasons why people might believe that shaving causes hair to grow back thicker.  First, the base of hair or the part closest to the skin is the thickest.  So following shaving, some might mistakenly think their hair actually appears thicker.  Additionally, after you shave, the stubble has a blunt end or tip which can be rough (hence the term stubble) and give the appearance of being thicker.  Some have even speculated that another factor that may have contributed to this myth is the fact that when we first start to shave when we are young, our hair is relatively thin, but it gets slightly thicker (this occurs naturally) as we get older, however this is not due to shaving.  Finally, hair might actually appear slightly darker following shaving as the dark stubble is contrasted against the skin.  Research on shaving and hair growth dates back to the 1920’s and does not support the idea that shaving causes hair to grow back thicker.  Lynfield & Macwilliams (1970) conducted a study in which they studied whether shaving impacted the weight, length, and width of hair.  These authors concluded that “No significant differences in rate of hair growth, either in length or weight, and no coarsening of individual hairs, could be ascribed to shaving”.


Lynfield Y & Macwilliams P: Shaving and hair growth. The Journal of Investigative Dermatology (1970), Vol 55, pps. 170-172.

True or False – A dog’s mouth is cleaner than a humans?

Posted on February 19, 2014

False. image42

My wife and I have always had dogs, and at times, we have had up to three of them.  So, we have plenty of stories of the interesting things dogs eat and do with their mouths.  For example, one day I had our cute little Cavachon (Scout) on a walk out in the woods on a sunny winter day.  The snow was fairly deep so we followed deer trails as we walked.  I’d estimate that by the time we completed our two hour walk, Scout had consumed his body weight in deer droppings.  He devoured those little delicacies like I devour chocolate covered coffee beans.  On another occasion in the summer, he emerged from under a bush with a bird carcass that was badly decomposed and rancid.  Given their eating habits, is it even remotely possible that a dog’s mouth could be cleaner than a human’s?  The simple answer is no.  This myth may have come about as people frequently see dogs lick their wounds, which wounds rarely get infected.  It’s possible that the constant licking helps clear away dead tissue on a wound and that might help promote healing, but a dog’s mouth is by no means “sterile” as some think.  One study by Rayan and colleagues (1991) compared human and animal mouth flora (flora is the total amount of bacteria and other microorganisms in or on the body).  Following their study, the authors concluded “Human oral flora contained the smallest number of bacteria followed by dog and cat oral flora, respectively”.  It seems logical, since most humans brush and floss their teeth once or twice a day, and unlike humans, dogs will eat almost anything they find.  However, many bacteria are species specific, so you’re more likely to get sick if you kiss your son or daughter than if you kiss your puppy.


Rayan G, Downard D, Cahill S, Flourney D: A comparison of human and animal mouth flora. Journal of the Oklahoma State Medical Association (1991), Vol 84, pps. 510-515.

True or False – Cooking in aluminum pots contributes to Alzheimer’s Disease?

Posted on February 4, 2014


57 cooking in aluminum potsOf all the myths I’ve written about, the topic of whether aluminum causes Alzheimer’s could be the one in which I’ve seen the most research. For example, I performed a search in Google Scholar using the keywords “Alzheimer’s” and “Aluminum”. The search identified 21,800 articles on the topic. Much of what I read doesn’t support the idea that there is a direct causal link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease. That is, being exposed to aluminum won’t cause you to get Alzheimer’s. However, research has also shown that there are increased levels of aluminum in the brain cells of Alzheimer’s patients. Again, it likely isn’t the aluminum that is causing Alzheimer’s, it might be that for some reason brain cells in people with Alzheimer’s tend to accumulate more aluminum. Perl and Moalem (2006) in an article in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease write “It is highly unlikely that aluminum represents an etiologic agent for Alzheimer’s disease”.
Aluminum is the third most abundant element on earth, we are exposed to trace amounts of aluminum everyday when we breath, eat, and drink. Most of the aluminum that enters our bodies is excreted. If small amounts of aluminum were toxic to humans, we would be in big trouble! The focus of this particular myth is whether cooking in aluminum pots contributes to Alzheimer’s. The aluminum exposure caused by cooking in aluminum pots is very small, and remember most of the aluminum that enters our bodies is excreted. My wife and I are crazy about popcorn; we eat it almost every night. A few years ago we bought an aluminum popcorn maker. If I thought there was even a remote chance that using this popcorn maker could contribute to Alzheimer’s, it would have been thrown out a long time ago!
Perl D & Moalem: Aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease, a personal perspective after 25 years. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (2006), Vol 9, pps. 291-300.

True or False – Consistently attending religious services increases life expectancy?

Posted on January 22, 2014


60 attending religious servicesOn most Sunday mornings our household is as busy as a bee’s nest.  Getting kids up, fed, teeth and hair brushed, clothes without stains or holes- it’s no small task!  I’m sure many of you with children can relate.  Our family goes through this routine almost every Sunday morning, not because we think it will prolong our lives, but because it is something we want to do and we enjoy it.  However, a large body of research evidence is now suggesting that attending religious services positively impacts longevity.  McCullough and colleagues (2000) published a study in the Journal Health Psychology in which they examined data from 42 samples or studies that looked at religious involvement and death rates.  They found that people who rated themselves as being highly religious were about 30% more likely to be alive, than those who were less religious, at various follow-up points.
The authors concluded that “Although the correlational nature of the data prohibit causal inferences, religious involvement has a nontrivial, favorable association with all-cause mortality”.  In other words, attending religious services doesn’t necessarily cause you to live longer, but there appears to be a relationship or association between the two variables.  It is well known that people with stronger social ties live longer and are generally healthier people.  This certainly could contribute to why people who attend religious services live longer.  Other contributing factors might include people who attend religious services tend to engage in less risky behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and doing drugs, watch out for each other, have less stress, and are better able to cope with stress and traumatic events in their lives.  Another possible reason might be that established routines and rituals in people’s lives give them something to look forward to and a sense of meaning and purpose.
McCullough M, Larson D, Hoyt W, Koenig H: Religious involvement and mortality: a meta-analytic review. Health Psychology (2000), Vol 19, pps. 211-222.

True or False – Antibacterial soap is superior to regular soap in preventing illnesses?

Posted on January 14, 2014


59 antibacterial soapAntibacterial soaps have become incredibly popular over the past five to ten years.  It can actually be slightly overwhelming to walk down the soap isle at your shopping market and see all of the antibacterial soap choices available.  Roughly between 70 and 75% of soaps available for purchase have “antibacterial” someplace on the label.  This, as well as wording like “kills up to 99.9% of bacteria” may help explain why these soaps have grown in popularity.  But the question still remains – are antibacterial soaps any better at killing germs than good old fashioned soap and water?  Most of the research on the topic is suggesting no.  Allison Aiello and colleagues (2007) published a review article in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases in which they examined the results of 27 studies on this topic.  The authors concluded “Collectively, the microbiological efficacy studies strongly suggest that concentrations of triclosan used in consumer liquid hand soaps do not provide a benefit over plain soap for reducing bacterial levels found on the hands.”
Triclosan is the major antibacterial agent in antibacterial soaps.  There are even some studies that suggest triclosan may contribute to resistant strains of bacteria and kill healthy bacteria on the skin.  Additionally, in 2005, an FDA advisory group studied this topic and came to the conclusion that there is no evidence that antibacterial soap is superior to regular soap.  It certainly is important to wash our hands, especially when we are sick, if we are cooking and handle raw meat, and after we go to the bathroom.  However, most of us do a pretty horrible job when it comes to washing our hands.  Proper hand washing technique calls for first wetting the hands, lathering the hands with soap for a minimum of 20 seconds, and then rinsing your hands for another 10 seconds.  Next time you wash your hands; see how long it really takes you!
Aiello A, Larson E, Levy S: Consumer antibacterial soaps: effective or just risky? Clinical Infectious Diseases (2007), Vol 45, pps. S137-S147.

True or False – The flu shot can cause the flu?

Posted on January 7, 2014


58 the flu shot causes the fluEvery year the flu season comes around and every year you have to make a decision of whether or not you are going to get vaccinated.  If you have children, you also need to decide if you will get them vaccinated or not.  Trust me when I say that can be a traumatic experience!  I’ve also learned that flu shots can be a very sensitive issue for lots of people.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that roughly 200,000 people are hospitalized and 36,000 people die from the flu annually.  The CDC offers a great deal of information about the flu as well as information about the types of flu vaccines offered.  There basically are two types of flu vaccines available.  The first is the flu shot, sometimes referred to as trivalent inactivated influenza vaccine.  The flu shot is considered “inactivated” because it contains killed flu viruses.
The second type of vaccine is the flu mist or nasal spray.  You will sometimes see this type of vaccine referred to as live attenuated influenza vaccine.  The spray or mist is considered “live” because it contains live, but weakened flu viruses.  Both vaccines have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and neither of the vaccines will result in you getting the flu.  The live attenuated vaccine is newer (only commercially available since about 2003) than the inactivated vaccine, however, some people can be hesitant to get the flu spray or mist because they are worried about the “live but weakened” nature of the vaccine.  A very nice article by Tosh et al., (2008) describes how the live attenuated vaccine is both a safe and effective vaccine.  So, why do you sometimes feel like you get the flu after you get a flu shot?  The body can sometimes experience an immune response to a flu shot which can result in flu like symptoms.  These symptoms can include muscle aches, headache, fever, cough, and a sore throat.
Tosh P, Boyce T, Poland G: Flu myths: dispelling the myths associated with live attenuated influenza vaccine. Mayo Clinic Proceedings (2008), Vol 1, pps. 77-84.