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Medical myths: Can weather cause colds?

June 23, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
You've heard it before -- cell phones cause cancer; going on the pill can make you fat; and cold weather can cause you to catch a cold. But are these fact or fiction? Experts reveal the truth.Everywhere you go, people have cell phones to their ears. Last year alone, Americans used more than two trillion cell phone minutes. But can all that time with the gadget next to your head cause brain cancer?

"There's no evidence to show that cell phones cause cancer," said hematologist and oncologist Dr. Vjay Reddy from the Florida Hospital Cancer Institute. "The radiofrequency that the cell phones emit is much lower than some of the standard devices that we use every day in our daily lives, such as microwaves."

Another common belief -- many think once brain cells die, they're gone for good. But good news -- we do grow new brain cells.

"What we think happens is that people who really keep their brains very active build up a cognitive reserve," said geriatrician Dr. Cynthia Holzer, M.D., the director of geriatric education at the Roger Williams Medical Center.

The best way to do it? Exercise for 30 minutes, read, or play a musical instrument.

Gaining weight is a big fear for many women. Some fear the scale so much they won't take birth control pills.

"The modern birth control pills we have do not cause any weight gain, weight loss, or any change in weight at all," said D. Ashley Hill, M.D., the medical director of the Loch Haven OB/GYN group at Florida Hospital.

Today's birth control pills have 20 to 30 micrograms of estrogen, while oral contraceptives in the 1960s had up to 150 micrograms.

With the cold weather season behind us, you'll probably be tossing out your old cold medicine. But is cold weather really to blame for your sore throat and runny nose? No -- this, too, is a myth.

"The fact that children get sick is a fact of life," said pediatrician Vinny Chulani, M.D.

Experts say the only way to get sick is through direct contact with the virus, like by coughing or sneezing.

So the next time you hear another one of these pesky health rumors, be sure to check the facts. But don't ignore everything you hear -- sometimes strange things might actually be true.

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MEDICAL MYTHS DEBUNKED: Why are some people concerned that cell phones cause cancer? According to the United States National Cancer Institute (NCI), one of the main reasons is that they emit radiofrequency (RF) energy -- a type of radiation. Also, since it is a fairly new technology, there are no long-term studies on the effects of cell phone radiation on the human body. RF energy is widespread in telecommunications and is emitted by AM/FM radios, VHF/UHF televisions, microwaves, cell phones, etc. These types of devices use non-ionizing (low-frequency) radiation. At high levels of exposure, RF energy in the ionizing form (high-frequency), like from an X-ray machine, is a health risk; but it is unknown whether non-ionizing radiation creates a cancer risk.

RADIATION EXPOSURE: The NCI says radiation exposure from cell phones depends on several things, including the number and length of calls, other cell phone traffic at a given time, the distance from the cell phone station, the quality of transmission, how long the antenna is and the size of the handset. For concerned users, hands-free kits are available and can reduce radiation exposure to the head.

CELL PHONE STUDIES: A study in 2000 funded by Wireless Technology Research LLC and NCI found no link between hand-held cell phones and brain cancer. For the study, researchers looked at a group of 469 men and women with brain cancer and a group of 422 men and women without brain cancer. Another study in 2001 looked specifically at three types of brain cancer -- glioma, meningioma and acoustic neuroma. It revealed brain tumors did not develop more often than expected on the side of the head users reported using their cell phone most.

GROWING BRAIN CELLS: Contrary to the long-standing belief, brain cells do re-grow. A study by researchers at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, revealed neurons in the hippocampus region of animal brains not only form; they also help create new memories. Researchers found when they reduced the formation of new hippocampus cells in rats using a drug inhibitor, their memory formation was inhibited. So what's a good way to help stimulate your brain? Exercise for 30 minutes a day, play mentally challenging games like Sudoku, read or play a musical instrument. CATCHING A COLD: Experts say colds appear to be more common in the winter months because that's when the viruses tend to spread across the country, but cold weather is not the culprit. People tend to be indoors more in the winter where spreading germs is easy. Doctors say one of the best ways to keep yourself sniffle-free is by washing your hands often.

HEART STOPPING SNEEZE? Myth: Does your heart stop for an instant whenever you sneeze ?

Reality: When a person sneezes, they increase their intrathoracic pressure and can decrease venous blood flow back to the heart, according to Dr. Chris Danner, a head and neck surgeon. "The heart may compensate for this by a slight change in its beating rate, but the heart and its electrical activity should not stop during a sneeze," says Dr. Danner.

TREATING A BURN: Myth- Putting butter on a burn will ease the pain. Reality: Hoskyn says that immediately after receiving a burn, it is important to cool the skin in order to stop the burning process. Putting butter or other greasy ointments on a burn may actually make things worse, since the grease will slow the release of heat from the skin, allowing damage to the skin from the burn to continue. The best way to cool the skin after a burn is with cool water, not ice or ice water. An antibiotic ointment and a bandage will aid the healing process. According to Hoskyn, leave the butter for your toast

CRACKING KNUCKLES: Myth: Cracking your knuckles causes arthritis. Reality: There's no evidence that knuckle cracking causes arthritis but it may cause temporary soreness of the joint. Knuckles are the joints that connect your fingers to your hand. These joints are surrounded and lubricated by synovial fluid, a thick, clear liquid. When you crack your knuckles, you're causing the bones of the joint to pull apart. This causes a gas bubble to form in the joint. The cracking or popping sound you hear is the breaking of the adhesive seal in the joint. It may take awhile for the joint to reseal before you can crack your knuckles again. The repetitive motion of cracking wears down the joints and their protective cushioning, so the habit could worsen osteoarthritis, but plays no role in rheumatoid arthritis, which is caused when a person's own immune system attacks the joints

 

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