20 Old Wives’ Tales You Should Stop Believing By Now
Will you a catch a cold with wet hair? Will your potato salad go bad in the heat? Does a drink help a hangover? We've got the answers that debunk (or defend) common old wives' tales.
Old wives’ tale: Peeing on a jellyfish sting alleviates the pain
This old wives’ tale is certainly effective in deterring people from coming too close to jellyfish. After all, no one wants to purposely pee on themselves—or worse, have a friend do it. However, many of you will be surprised (and some, a bit regretful) to learn that the tale is not actually true.
Jellyfish stings result from millions of stinging cells on a jellyfish’s tentacle, known as nematocytes, injecting venom into the skin. After getting stung, rather than heading straight to the bathroom—or commissioning a brave friend to come with you—follow three simple steps to alleviate the pain: First, remove the tentacles with something other than your fingers (to prevent further stinging). Next, disable the nematocytes by pouring an acidic compound, such as vinegar, on the site of the sting. Finally, use a flat object to scrape off the stinging cells, and voilà, you have treated your jellyfish sting—without the use of urine!
Old wives’ tale: You can’t swim after eating, or you may drown
The old wives’ tale that you can’t swim after eating is not actually true—although you’ve probably heard your mother say it countless times. Cue the eye-roll and dramatic sigh over all those lost minutes in the pool. This myth assumes that after eating, the body diverts blood from your limbs to the digestive tract, depleting your arms and legs of enough blood to swim. While it is true that digestion requires extra blood, the body does not drain the limbs of enough blood to work properly. According to Duke Health, the worst thing that could happen from swimming after eating is a small, harmless cramp. This is only one of many rampant health myths that need to die.
Old wives’ tale: If you’re carrying high, it’s a girl. If you’re carrying low, it’s a boy.
Many expecting parents decide to be surprised by the sex of their baby, adding a layer of suspense to their nine-month journey. Yet, even the strongest wills can be tantalized by anticipation, with many parents wondering if the adage “if you’re carrying high it’s a girl and if you’re carrying low, it’s a boy” is true. According to Adina Holand Keller, MD Associate Chief of OB/GYN at Northern Westchester Hospital and Private Practitioner at Caremount Medical Group in Mount Kisco, New York, “When a woman is pregnant you can’t tell the sex of the baby based on how the woman is carrying the baby. If a woman looks like she is carrying high or low, it is based on the size and position of the baby and the shape of her pelvis.” Unfortunately, the only verified ways to uncover the sex of your baby are to indulge your desires and ask your doctor—or wait until the big day! Similar to this old wives’ tale, here are 9 pregnancy myths you can safely ignore.
Old wives’ tale: If you cross your eyes for too long, they will get stuck that way
It happens the same way for everyone. One minute you’re sitting in your high-chair, minding your own business, experimenting with this new eye-trick that you’ve discovered—when suddenly your mother drops the bomb: “If you cross your eyes for too long, they will get stuck that way!” Obviously, internal panic ensues, as you scramble to correct your eyes and ensure that it’s not too late for them to be saved. The jury is finally back on this claim, however, and the verdict is that it’s bogus.
According to Stephen Kronwith, MD, PhD, Chief of Pediatric Ophthalmology at NYU Winthrop Hospital on Long Island, “Children cross their eyes for fun, but they can’t hold the position for long, and it’s not dangerous. They’ll see double, but it won’t leave any permanent issues.” His advice? “Just ignore it, and they’ll stop doing it,” Dr. Kronwith says.
Old wives’ tale: Bees are only attracted to the color yellow
Have you ever noticed a bee hovering dangerously close to your yellow shirt and instantly longed to be wearing the blue one you tossed aside that morning? You’re probably familiar with the old wives’ tale that bees are only attracted to the color yellow. Surprisingly, however, this is just a myth. According to the New York Botanical Garden, bees perceive color differently than humans, making them able to recognize colors on the lighter end of the spectrum—like yellow or green. On the other hand, bees see all darker colors as black. Due to their limited eyesight, bees are more likely to pollinate lightly colored flowers and gravitate toward light clothing (which in their minds are potential flowers). Bottom line? The next time you wish for a blue shirt to relieve you of a bee’s attention, think again!
Old wives’ tale: Bulls hate the color red
Bullfighting fans are familiar with the traditional blood-red flag, known as a “muleta,” that the matador dangles in front of his bull opponent, challenging it to charge. While many people believe that the bull chases the flag because of its inherent hatred for the color red, this is not actually true. In reality, bulls are completely color blind and are equally as bothered by green and blue flags as they are by red ones. So, what makes the bull surge towards a flapping red flag? The bull is actually instigated by the muleta’s motion, as the matador waves it around the ring. Surprised to learn bulls don’t hate red? You won’t believe these 51 other “facts” that are actually false.
Old wives’ tale: You should always follow the “five-second rule”
If you’ve ever let a freshly bought snack slip from your fingers, you’ve probably thought about following the “five-second rule.” This famous rule implies that food can lie on the ground for five whole seconds before becoming contaminated by bacteria. Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence of a golden window in which food can be dropped and safely recovered. Arefa Cassobhoy, MD, MPH, medical editor at WebMD, previously told Reader’s Digest what doctors really think about the five-second rule: “Eating food that’s fallen to the ground does come with a risk of taking in bacteria known to cause food poisoning. Research shows food will instantaneously pick up bacteria from the surface it lands on.” Though it may pain you to part with your food, it’s better to be safe than sorry!
Old wives’ tale: It takes 7 years to digest a piece of gum
This ubiquitous old wives’ tale probably manifests in the back of your mind each time your gum loses its flavor and there is no trash bin in sight. Performing a quick cost-benefit-analysis of your options, you ask yourself whether swallowing this gum now is worth carrying it in your body for the next seven years. While it is true that the synthetic portion of chewing gum is indigestible by the human body, it does not just sit in your stomach for several years. Instead, your stomach periodically empties its waste into the small intestine, which soon passes it along to the colon. Within a week, the swallowed gum will reemerge in your stool. Wondering whether you should start swallowing your gum more often? Find out whether it is dangerous to swallow gum.
Old wives’ tale: Coffee stunts your growth
You probably heard this old wives’ tale a lot when you were younger, each time that you were denied a taste of your parents’ coffee on the basis that it will stunt your growth. Coffee lovers (and curious kids) rejoice, however, as this common warning is actually a myth! According to Johns Hopkins, the caffeine present in coffee will not affect children’s growth patterns. Furthermore, coffee consumption is actually linked to numerous health benefits, such as the reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, abnormal heart rhythms, strokes, certain cancers, and many other diseases.
Old wives’ tale: Humans only use 10 percent of their brains
You may be familiar with the “10% Myth,” a common misconception that humans are only capable of using 10 percent of their brains. This old wives’ tale is often cited by people who claim to have “psychic powers” or access to untapped parts of the brain and even served as the storyline for the 2014 film, Lucy. However, PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans and fMRIs (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) have proved that this common trope is not actually true. In reality, the entire human brain is constantly active—even when we are sleeping! While this old wives’ tale was definitely false, here are 8 old wives’ tales about food that are actually true.
Old wives’ tale: Don’t go outside with wet hair. You’ll catch a cold.
Getting chilled does not cause a cold—at least not under laboratory conditions. In one study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, two groups of people were exposed to viruses that cause the common cold. One group was exposed to the germs in a chilly 5°C room; the other group, in a balmy 30°C room. The result? Both groups caught colds at about the same rate. Sorry, old wives.
Old wives’ tale: Foods with mayonnaise spoil faster
Turns out this old wives’ tale is not actually true. When you turn your leftover chicken into chicken salad, the mayonnaise actually helps prevent spoilage. Why? Because commercial mayonnaise is somewhat acidic. The upshot: when you’re heading out for a picnic or setting out a buffet, you don’t have to avoid mayonnaise—just be conscious of keeping the food cold. And if you know that there will be leftovers, cover the dish and get it in the refrigerator as quickly as possible.
Old wives’ tale: Feed a cold, starve a fever
Forget the old saying about “starving a fever” to make it go away. (Actually, the original saying was “feed a cold, stave a fever,” stave meaning “to prevent.”) Fasting will weaken you just as you should be preserving your strength. Even if you don’t feel like eating, you should consider trying bland foods, such as chicken soup, toast, or other soothing foods. Contrary to this old wives’ tale, medical experts assert that eating bolsters your immune system and arms your body to fight infections. For the fastest recovery, forget starving your fever—and these 15 other health myths that make doctors cringe.
Old wives’ tale: Overdo it? Have little hair of the dog.
The 16th century English dramatist John Heywood suggested that the best way to recover from a hangover was to have the “hair of the dog that bit you”—meaning, another alcoholic drink. The old wives’ tale and the expression is a spin-off from the misguided notion that you could recover from a dog bite by plucking a hair from the dog and holding it to the wound. Unfortunately, the advice doesn’t work any better for hangovers than it does for dog bites. Drinking your way out of a hangover will only postpone and prolong your misery.
Old wives’ tale: Chocolate gives you acne
You may have heard this old wives’ tale when you were younger, as you were forced to make the heart-wrenching decision between the rich taste of chocolate and an embarrassing day at school. Chocolate lovers are in luck, however, because experts have ruled that this old wives’ tale is not necessarily true. It is true that a high-fat or high-sugar diet can exacerbate acne and sugary or dairy-filled foods often cause hormone fluctuations, which can also increase acne. However, there is no evidence that consuming moderate amounts of chocolate directly triggers acne—and dark chocolate actually promotes numerous health benefits. The bottom line? Regularly eating large quantities of chocolate can introduce excessive amounts of sugar and fat to your diet, and contribute to increased acne. However, relishing a chocolate bar from time-to-time will not change your skin—only your happiness.
Old wives’ tale: Don’t eat spicy food if you are prone to ulcers
Doctors used to think spicy foods were no good for people with peptic ulcers. Modern research, however, has shown that this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that hot peppers, which contain a chemical called capsaicin, may actually help to heal ulcers by stimulating blood flow to the wound.
Old wives’ tale: Get your hair squeaky clean
Forget the old wives’ tale about washing your hair until it’s squeaky clean. Shampooing your hair until it squeaks strips the hair shafts of necessary oils. Instead, apply shampoo to the roots only and work it gently into the rest of the hair. Lather only once, rinse thoroughly, and apply conditioner—unless the conditioner is already in the shampoo. Here are our favorite 45 beauty tips from grandmas.
Old wives’ tale: Put some brandy on your baby’s gums
A risky remedy. Most new parents have heard the old wives’ tale that dabbing brandy or whiskey on a baby’s gums will alleviate teething pain. On one hand, it may seem harmless to dab such a minute quantity of alcohol on your baby’s gums—not to mention that you’re desperate to soothe their pain. However, even a very small amount of alcohol can be toxic to a baby and is strongly discouraged by medical professionals. Instead of this alcoholic antidote, try using natural remedies, such as massaging a warm washcloth on your baby’s gums.
Old wives’ tale: Never open the door when baking a souffle
Opening the oven door is unlikely to be a disaster unless your kitchen is very drafty, but you are much more likely to make a successful soufflé if you keep the oven door closed during cooking. The soufflé should increase in volume by at least half and sometimes as much as double and to do this it must cook at the correct temperature. Opening the oven door will cause a sudden drop in temperature.
Old wives’ tale: Turkey makes you tired.
Each year on Thanksgiving, as we clean the last lick of turkey and stuffing off of our plates, a wave of exhaustion hits us. Many people identify this sleepy state as a side effect of the turkey, but this is just another old wives’ tale. While meat does contain an amino acid that helps to create melatonin, a brain chemical known for making people tired, turkey does not actually cause more fatigue than other foods. So, why are you tired after your Thanksgiving banquet? The large quantities of carbohydrates and alcohol that most people consume on this holiday are the real culprits behind this widespread fatigue, so you can pardon the poor turkeys—of blame, at least! Similar to this false turkey tale, here are 17 common science “facts” that are not actually true.