Health Proverbs: Fact or Fiction?

We consulted the experts to get the truth about 7 common pieces of health advice. Read on to test your health IQ!

By Katie Choi
Sep 28, 2016

Sep 28, 2016

Starve a fever, feed a cold.
FICTION: This adage, popularized by Mark Twain, has been repeated for centuries — but experts don’t recommend following it. If your child has an appetite, he can follow his normal diet, but if he doesn’t want to eat, that’s okay too. Children with a cold or other respiratory illness can drink whatever they like, but for vomiting and diarrhea, you may want to consider an oral electrolyte solution (like Enfamil® Enfalyte®).

Green or yellow mucus means you should take an antibiotic.
“Pediatricians hate this one,” says Stephen Lauer, MD, associate chair of pediatrics at the University of Kansas Hospital. “Green or yellow mucus simply means that your immune system is working to clear an infection — it doesn’t say much about the source of the problem.” Anytime you get sick, your immune system sends infection-fighting white blood cells rushing to the area. These cells contain a greenish-colored enzyme, which in large numbers can turn mucus the same color.

In one study where mucus samples were tested for the presence of bacteria, only 59 percent of green mucus and 46 percent of yellow mucus came out positive — and if your child’s infection turns out to be viral instead of bacterial, antibiotics won’t do anything to cure it. Viral sinusitis usually clears up on its own, but consult your doctor if your child has yellow or green discharge that lasts for 10 to 14 days, as this may be a sign of a bacterial sinus infection, says Dr. Lauer.

Fish is a brain food.
Turns out Mom was right: The omega-3 fatty acids in fish (especially fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna) promote healthy brain development and function in children. In one study of 7- to 9-year-old children, higher levels of omega-3s in the blood were directly correlated with improvements in reading and memory. 

Colds can lead to ear infections
Colds are caused by viruses, while most ear infections are caused by bacteria, so they’re not directly related. But if your child always seems to get an ear infection when she has a cold, there’s a reason: “Colds cause mucus to thicken, which can block the normal flow of fluid in the eustachian tube (the passageway that connects the middle ear to the back of the throat),” says Danelle Fisher, MD, FAAP, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. “This blockage can lead to fluid buildup in the middle ear and result in a bacterial infection.” Children in general are more prone to developing ear infections than adults because their eustachian tubes are flatter and not yet fully developed, so don’t despair if your child seems to get one ear infection after another. These painful episodes won’t last forever.

High fevers cause brain damage.
 In fact, the brain is very good at safely managing your internal temperature — it won’t let the body get so hot that it causes damage. (The exception: If you’re in an environment where the brain can’t compensate for the external temperature, as in a hot car with the windows up, the body can overheat.) The one thing to watch out for, according to our experts? How your child looks. If her temperate is high but she's acting normal, there is no immediate cause for alarm. But if she weak, irritable, or more tired than usual -- even with a low-grade fever -- it's time to get her to a pediatrician, ASAP. And always check in with your doctor if your child’s fever is over 102°F or lasts longer than three days.

Milk increases mucus production.
Consuming milk and other dairy products may seem unappealing when you have a cold, but there is no scientific evidence that it increases mucus production, congestion, or nasal secretions. Psychology seems to play a large role in this widely held assumption: In one study, people who believed “milk makes mucus” reported significantly more cough and congestion symptoms than those who didn’t — but they didn’t actually produce higher levels of nasal secretions. However, milk can cause phlegm to thicken temporarily and be more irritating to the throat; if you notice this effect in your child, Dr. Fisher advises forgoing dairy until he or she is feeling better.

Chicken soup is good for a cold.
Chicken soup won’t actually cure a cold — there is no cure for the common cold — but it is scientifically proven to help you feel better. In general, drinking hot liquids increases the flow of nasal mucus, which helps clear the airways to ease congestion, and hot broth has been shown to be more effective than plain hot water. Chicken soup also helps keep you hydrated, since it contains sodium and other electrolytes.?

In addition to helping to treat the symptoms of a cold, chicken soup can also have a therapeutic effect. When you have a cold, the immune system floods the upper respiratory tract with infection-fighting white blood cells, which aren’t all that effective at killing the virus but end up stimulating the production of excess mucus. Research suggests that chicken soup inhibits the movement of neutrophils, a common type of white blood cell, which may help to ease stuffiness, coughing, and sneezing.

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