When it comes the things we believe about the body, it’s easy to oversimplify or believe things about the ways it functions that are simply untrue.
Even though most of the myths are pretty harmless, some ideas we have about our bodies can actually keep us from making the right decisions about how to care for ourselves.
Take bloodletting, for example. Doctors drained patients’ blood in hopes that it would help them stave off illness. It was a dubious practice that was used to treat everyone from medieval peasants to George Washington, and suffice it to say, it usually did little to help affected patients.
Thankfully, bloodletting has gone out of style, and most doctors and citizens are as well-informed about proper medical care as they’ve been at any point in history.
However, a number of misconceptions about the human body, and specifically, what to do in medical emergencies or first aid situations still swirl around in the American consciousness. Put grease on a burn? Peroxide on an open cut? If someone has a seizure, should you be reaching for your wallet?
Let’s clear up those lingering untrue “facts” once and for all.
1. Butter is for bread. Toothpaste is for teeth. Neither are for burns.
Robb Rehberg is the director of first aid training and program development at the National Safety Council (NSC), an organization that eliminates preventable death through education and advocacy. He meets with a wide range of Americans to train them about proper emergency medical procedures and is very familiar with the inaccurate treatments that are still rattling around out there.
Rehberg asserts that one of the most common misconceptions he’s encountered involve treatment of burns. Over time, some folks have believed that a bit of butter can help sooth a burn, but that’s just not true. Explains Rehberg on treating burned skin with some Land O’ Lakes: “We’re not trying to cook people. Not quite sure where butter came from, but I’ve heard it before. We certainly don’t want to put butter on a burn.”
The truth is this: Not only is butter not an effective burn treatment, but it can actually make the situation worse.
The first thing that must happen after a burn is cooling of the skin, but Rehberg says butter—or other home treatments—will not be helpful: “The skin has been burned and it needs to cool itself. Butter or any ointment is clogging up pores where heat dissipation occurs. We are hindering the body’s ability to cool itself.”
First aid expert Andrew Berger, who is the owner and training site coordinator at Healthline First Aid, also warns against butter or other believed fixes for a burn, saying that it “can actually make the burn worse by slowing the release of heat from the skin.” Indeed, if butter is a no-go, why do some think that burns need to be treated like a piece of toast?
Berger calls butter an “old folk remedy.” An Australian medical report makes mention of an 18th century document from the Prussian Surgeon General that reads more like a recipe than an emergency procedure, saying that burns should be “painted over with grease or butter, or powdered with flour, starch or powdered charcoal to alleviate the pain.”
Rehberg also says that toothpaste is a common household burn remedy, mostly because it usually feels cool to the skin, but that the “cooling” is just a chemical reaction that is actually irritating the skin, the last thing you want to do to a sensitive burn area.
The best burn fix? A simple running of cool water for about 20 minutes. Berger explains: “Keeping in mind that there are several types of burns and several degrees of burns. Most minor burns will heal on their own and can [be] treated by running cool water over them.”
According to Rehberg, you could also treat the affected area with a burn-specific ointment or aloe vera gel. These substances will actually help cool the burn rather than gunk it up like a stack of pancakes at IHOP.
2. If you’re cleaning a wound, keep the peroxide away.
Another common misconception Rehberg hears from students he teaches at the NSC is the use of peroxide on a wound.
“Every medicine cabinet has peroxide. It’s not the best thing for an open wound,” states Rehberg about the all-too-familiar brown bottle of searing pain. While it may help sterilize a cut, the age-old favorite of teachers and moms could do plenty of damage as well. “You might be killing bacteria, but you’re also killing healthy skin cells,” explains Rehberg. Such an act could hamper the wound’s ability to heal or leave a more noticeable scar.
The best remedy for cuts and wounds of a manageable size is a simple one: soap and water. Berger claims you don’t need to get too complicated when treating a wound: “People always think you need ointments … for cuts and scrapes. Just wash it with antibacterial soap, it’s the best thing to clean a wound.” A deliberate wash in the sink followed by an appropriately-sized bandage will be more than enough medical attention to allow your body to do what it does best: heal itself.
This is all assuming, of course, that the cut is of a manageable size and won’t need stitches. In every true medical emergency, you should dial 911 for assistance. Or, if your injury isn’t quite so perilous, call your primary care physician for tips on how to handle a less severe medical situation
3. Don’t tip your head back for a bloody nose.
Nosebleeds are one of the most common minor injuries. Sometimes, they are a side effect of another injury, and other times, they just spontaneously show up. Because they happen frequently, nearly everyone seems to know the treatment. However, as you will see in the video below, the traditional nosebleed remedy is also one of the most common medical misconceptions.
4. The truth about frostbite and hot water.
There’s a belief that if any skin or limbs fall victim to frostbite, the affected area should be heated up as quickly as possible with hot water. However, this isn’t exactly what medical professionals recommend.
First of all, cold limbs don’t necessarily mean frostbite. Berger reveals that the term “is often used too broadly for skin exposed to cold. The first stage of frostbite is frostnip, which doesn’t cause permanent skin damage and should not be treated with hot water.”
There’s no need to get the tea kettle whistling for a case of frostnip. Instead, says Berger, “it can be treated by gently rewarming the area with mild to warm water.”
When it comes to true frostbite, Rehberg says there is no better treatment than contacting the professionals: “If we’re in a situation where we have frostbite and we are close to medical help, we just want to make sure we activate the EMS system.” In certain frostbite cases, a form of reheating the body will include the use of very warm water—“about 110 degrees”—but that this practice is reserved for those with proper training to avoid further injury.
One of the dangers of treating frostbite on your own in the wild is the risk of the affected parts refreezing if subjected to the elements again: “You may actually be causing more damage,” warns Rehberg. For emergencies, there is a practice called wet-rapid rewarming that Rehberg states is “reserved for controlled environments like in a medical facility or advanced courses like wilderness first aid.”
5. Don’t heat up that sprained ankle.
Sprains and small fractures can run the gamut from inconvenience to serious hindrance. How they are treated can have a major influence on how quickly they heal.
One misconception is to add heat to a sprained area. That’s the wrong move, according to Rehberg, who gives an easy rhyme for sprain treatment: “Ice is nice, hot is not.”
Also, patients should follow the proper protocol when it comes to icing: just about 10 minutes at a time. Rehberg advises that people with a sprain should “not ice continuously,” adding that folks should avoid the inclination to “go big or go home.” When it comes to ice on a sprain, more is not always better.
RICE—rest, ice, compression, elevation—is usually the go-to guideline for muscle soreness and injury. However, the doctor that coined RICE, Gabe Mirkin, actually rescinded this acronym, writing that after years of recommendation by coaches, “now it appears that both Ice and complete Rest may delay healing, instead of helping.”
Mirkin, as well as a few studies, realized that while ice does keep inflammation down and numbs a bit of the pain, it also prevents that inflammation from fulfilling its original intent: healing. Long-term icing can be detrimental to the healing process by limiting the amount of muscle repairing cells that can access the site of the injury. Mirkin recommends something similar to Rehberg’s suggestion: It’s okay to ice an injury for 10 minutes once or twice with a waiting period between applications. However, icing should be avoided after this. Mirkin points out that there’s no benefit to applying ice six hours after the injury occurs.
6. If you witness someone faint or have a seizure, don’t worry about their tongue.
There’s an old belief that someone could “swallow their tongue” while passed out. Even Rehberg is familiar with this unique concern, saying he remembers being a kid and hearing rumors of someone passing away because they swallowed their tongue.
“That’s not what happens” asserts Rehberg, “what happens is that the soft tissue in our airway can close off if we’re not responsive.” In the event of an unresponsive individual, Rehberg says the first thing he teaches his students is “how to open the airway very easily by tilting their head and lifting their chin.” By positioning the head in this way, you can prevent the threat of suffocation.
Similarly, it was a long-held belief that someone experiencing a seizure could bite their tongue off, so people were advised to give those in a seizure state a wooden spoon or even a wallet to bite down on.
You might see where this is going: Rehberg advice is to “never put anything in the mouth of someone having a seizure.” The best protocol is to let the seizure pass, then assist with any injuries—putting your hands near the mouth of a seizure victim could be harmful to them, or as Berger says, “it’s a really good way to lose a finger.”
7. Don’t throw up poison until you’ve talked to the pros.
The swallowing of poison is an absolute emergency situation. And though many think that inducing vomiting will expunge the poison from the body, there are certain situations where that might not be the right move.
Bergen states: “Inducing vomiting is not recommended for certain substances which can cause more damage on the way back up. The most important steps to take are call 911 and contact the Poison Control Center.”
Rehberg points out that poison control—which is a hotline that can be reached 24/7 at 1-800-222-1222—may advise you to take other action depending on what kind of substance was swallowed. In the case of acidic toxins, explains Rehberg, “it may better to ingest something like milk to absorb some of it,” though he mentions that isn’t the only remedy that Poison Control recommends. Contacting Poison Control is critical in these situations because every substance could involve dramatically different symptoms and treatments.
8. “Grandpa’s Cough Medicine” has little application in emergency situations.
Over the course of human history, there have been a number of remedies or medical treatments that include drinking beverages that today are only found behind the bar.
A Johnson’s First Aid Manual from 1909 suggests that a sip of brandy could help “encourage circulation” in the case of a victim who has recently recovered from artificial respiration. It was long believed that such substances were stimulants, and, as a result, were recommended for a variety of medical professionals for use in certain situations.
Such usage has declined significantly over time.
Berger says he’s heard of stories of a little brandy to ease various pains, but in general it’s “not something I could recommend to anyone.” He says many people have the image of a dashing doctor taking a bottle of hooch from the bar to clean a wound, but dismisses such things as “very Hollywood.”
9. The Truth About Water Intake
When it comes to how much water we aim to drink each day, eight glasses has long been touted as the gold standard. But how accurate is the belief that everyone should drink 64 ounces of H2O each and every day?
The fact of the matter is, a one-size-fits-all rule is often too simple. Each person has different needs, and this definitely applies when it comes to water intake.
“Drinking eight glasses of water a day is not only not necessary for most people most of the time; it’s actually a very bad idea for the elderly or anyone who has a heart condition or kidney impairment. That much water is far too much for those people and can overwhelm their systems,” explains Dr. David Belk, internal medicine doctor and healthcare blogger.
So just how much water should you aim to drink each day? You might not like the answer, but water intake should vary person to person, day to day. The activities that fill your day, like working out or working outside, along with the environment you live in influence your body’s need for fluids according to Valentina Olivadese, holistic nutritionist and owner of Valiant Nutrition.
There is good news, though! You don’t have play a guessing game, because your body will tell you when it’s time to pour a glass. The body is great at communicating its needs, especially if you are a generally healthy person.
Instead of aiming to drink a certain number of ounces of water each day, just pour yourself a glass whenever you body tells you it’s thirsty, instructs Dr. Fayne Frey, board-certified dermatologist.
10. The Truth About When You Should Stop Eating
Many dieters and health enthusiasts hold strong to the belief that food eaten after a certain time each night will contribute to weight gain. Even well-respected publications like Runner’s World advise their readers to stop eating right after dinner if they want to lose weight.
As it turns out, though, there is hardly an ounce of truth to this claim, according to Dr. Lisa Doggett, a board-certified family physician who says that the act of eating late at night is not what causes weight gain. Instead, it is eating more calories that can land you in trouble.
So, yeah, that late-night PB&J might be causing you to gain weight, but it’s the calorie count, not the timing, that deserves the blame.
Additionally, Olivadese suggests that late night eating and weight gain may have a more complicated relationship than we assume.
“This myth is so widespread because late-night eating is usually mindless and happens at the end of the day when a person ate too little. Feeling famished makes us more likely to eat whatever we can find and to eat to the point of feeling stuffed. This cycle of starvation and bingeing can affect weight over time by causing stress and … preoccupation,” she says.
When in doubt, trust your hunger and feed your body healthy options in small portions, no matter what time of day hunger strikes.
11. The Truth About How Much of Your Brain You Use
Maybe like us, the first time you heard the statement that humans only use 10 percent of our brain power, it was coming from a self-improvement guru. Their solution was simple: Learn to use more of your brain, become a better person.
It’s not bad advice at first glance, but dig a little deeper and you’ll learn that it’s based on a widely accepted falsehood about the human brain. The idea that we only use a very small percentage of our brain couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Most of our brain is continuously active, though we are unaware of much of what our brain does all day. Even when we’re sitting and doing nothing, our brains are busy regulating our heart rate, body temperatures, blood pressures, posture, etc.,” shares Belk.
And even when we aren’t paying close attention to what’s going on in our brain, it is working hard to process what is going on around us using the information it takes in through the senses. Each part of our brain is so important that even a small stroke that affects only one spot in the brain may be debilitating, according to Belk.
“That we only use 10 percent of our brain is an urban myth that was never based on any scientific evidence whatsoever,” he concludes.
12. The Truth About Your Baseline Body Temperature
Feeling a little clammy? Don’t automatically assume something is up just because the thermometer isn’t reading 98.6 degrees.
Even though most people hold pretty strongly to the belief that 98.6 degrees is the baselines temperature for humans across the board, it’s less of a rule and more of a guideline, according to Belk.
“In fact, it’s not even all that common for a healthy person to have a temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. A person’s body temperature will vary by one to two degrees throughout the day with an average of around 98 degrees and only occasionally crossing 98.6 degrees,” he explains.
Instead, we should look for a range of temperatures within certain limitations. Most healthy people will find that their temperature changes by small amounts but falls somewhere between 97 and 99 degrees.
13. The Truth About What Shaving Does to Your Hair
As a preteen, I was told more than once to put off shaving my legs as long as possible because once I started, my hair would grow in dark and thick. I mostly ignored that advice, but I’ve always wondered if there is any truth to the idea that shaving makes your hair grow thicker.
Frey was quick to set the record straight. Hair does not grow faster or thicker if it has been shaved. In fact, because the nature of hair fibers, which are made of a protein called keratin, it’s impossible for shaving to have any effect on their structure.
“The visible portion of the hair that is cut has no biological activity. Since the dead hair shaft cannot send information about being cut to the hair follicle, the site of hair growth, growth continues as usual,” says Frey.
The fact that this belief is a myth isn’t new information, either. According to Frey, in 1928 a forensic anthropologist by the name of Mildred Trotter published conclusive findings that shaving does nothing to the color or texture of hair and it certainly doesn’t speed up growth.
And, while we’re at it, the same goes for trimming your nails.
“Similarly, clipping a fingernail, also made of keratin, does not cause the fingernail to grow any slower or faster because it was trimmed,” adds Frey.
14. The Truth About Detoxing
After every holiday, we’re barraged with advertising for detox diets. The idea behind each diet is that the body needs help clearing all the junk we eat out of our systems. But just how much truth is there to the claims that there are pounds of waste trapped in the human body? And does detoxing really help?
“Our bodies are not dirty vessels and the concept of detoxing is off base…our livers are incredible machines, they help detoxify the world around you,” explains Elizabeth Trattner, an integrative medicine practitioner.
Although we are exposed to more chemicals than previous generations, regular detoxes are needless according to Trattner, who suggests skipping juicing and just eating the whole fruit instead.
Trattner does help some of her patients detox, but these are people who have been exposed to dangerous chemicals or have genetic conditions that prevent their livers from clearing heavy metals.
“So many women come to see me saying, ‘I ate so much and now I have to detox.’ Seriously, just eat [healthy foods] and you’re good to go.” she advises.
The biggest takeaway is that when it comes to any medical situation, you should first and foremost defer to the professionals.
That means, say, your primary care doctor or poison control—and 911 in emergency situations.
It is also extremely useful to get trained by professionals: CPR and first aid training classes are available in big cities and small towns from coast to coast. Large organizations like the NSC will often offer classes; you can find classes at local offices like Healthline First Aid, too. Berger stresses that while knowing what do with burns and sprains is beneficial, “learning proper CPR and how to use an AED [automated external defibrillator] is even more important, considering most cardiac emergencies happen at home.”