19 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? We have the answers that debunk common old wives' tales.
Facts vs. fiction
Whether you’re afraid to go swimming after you eat or you won’t go outside with wet hair, everyone has old wives’ tales they’ve believed since childhood. Some are just harmless stories but some of these remedies can actually make things worse. Here are some common tales and misconceptions and the truth behind the stories.
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, you might be surprised to learn that the tale is not actually true.
Jellyfish stings result from millions of stinging cells on a jellyfish’s tentacle, 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 a few simple steps to alleviate the pain of a jellyfish sting. First, remove the tentacles with something other than your fingers (to prevent further stinging). Next, use seawater to rinse the area and remove the tentacles. Don’t use freshwater because that can cause more venom to be released. Use a flat object to scrape off the stinging cells or gloves and tweezers if you have them. When you’re done, rinse the area with hot water or take a hot shower to ease the pain.
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. Swimming can be as exhausting as any other sport, so that’s why kids should take breaks every couple of hours, but it’s usually OK to jump into the pool after lunch. That’s just one of dozens of secrets lifeguards want you to know.
Old wives’ tale: If you’re carrying high, it’s a girl. If you’re carrying low, it’s a boy.
Many expecting parents want 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 is to ask your doctor what the ultrasound shows—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 a little kid, 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. If your child has strabismus, a form of lazy eye, that’s when one eye drifts inward or outward occasionally.
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). If you do get stung, here’s how to recognize and treat a bee sting.
Old wives’ tale: Bulls hate the color red
In bull fights, there is a traditional red flag 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. Bulls, like all cattle, are color-blind.
Animal behavior and animal rights author Temple Grandin writes in Improving Animal Welfare that the retina of cattle is actually most sensitive to yellowish-green and bluish-purple light. The retina lacks a receptor for red.
In reality, bulls 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 flag’s motion, as the matador waves it around the ring.
Color-blindness is also very common in people.
Old wives’ tale: You should always follow the “five-second rule”
If you’ve ever let a snack slip from your fingers, you’ve probably thought about following the five-second rule. This well-known rule implies that food can lie on the ground for five long 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.
“Eating food that’s fallen to the ground does come with a risk of taking in bacteria known to cause food poisoning,” said Arefa Cassobhoy, MD, MPH. “Research shows food will instantaneously pick up bacteria from the surface it lands on.” One 2016 study published in the Applied and Environmental Microbiology tested a variety of foods on various floor surfaces, and it found that no food completely avoided contamination. Watermelon picked up the most germs, while gummy candy picked up the fewest.
Old wives’ tale: It takes 7 years to digest a piece of gum
You probably worry about this one each time your gum loses its flavor and there is no trash can in sight. 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 about a week, the swallowed gum will reemerge in your stool. That said, it’s still a better idea to look for a garbage can. Find out whether it is dangerous to swallow gum.
Old wives’ tale: Coffee stunts your growth
You may have heard this often when you were younger, each time you tried to get a sip of your parents’ coffee. According to Johns Hopkins, the caffeine present in coffee will not affect children’s growth patterns. Furthermore, limited 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. A 2013 review in Psychology Learning and Teaching found this is one of the most common public misconceptions. This belief 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, imaging (PET and fMRI scans) has shown that this isn’t true. In reality, the entire human brain is constantly active—even when we are sleeping! While this belief is definitely false, here are 8 old wives’ tales about about weather that are also not true.
Old wives’ tale: Don’t go outside with wet hair. You’ll catch a cold.
Just having wet hair and going outside doesn’t cause a cold. Colds are caused by viruses, not cold weather. But you may want to dry your hair anyway. Some research suggests that when it’s cold outside the cold virus can reproduce more efficiently in your body. That might be part of the reason we get more colds in winter. It also may have to do with the fact that people tend to gather more in large groups indoors, spreading their germs, when it’s cold outside.
Old wives’ tale: Foods with mayonnaise spoil faster
Turns out this isn’t always true. When you turn your leftover chicken into chicken salad, the mayonnaise can actually helps prevent spoilage. Why? Because commercial mayonnaise is somewhat acidic. Research from the Food Research Institute of the University of Wisconsin finds that store-bought mayo (not the kind you make at home) has acidity which can reduce spoiling. The key is to make sure food is kept cold.
When you’re heading out for a picnic or setting out a buffet, you don’t have to avoid mayonnaise—although there are some foods you should never pack. 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. The key is to feed your body healthy foods in order to strengthen your immune system so you can 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 a little hair of the dog
One common suggestion for recovering 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. Maybe the only way it works is by numbing your pain, but that will postpone and prolong your misery. Instead, here are some tricks to cure a hangover naturally.
Old wives’ tale: Chocolate gives you acne
You may have heard this when you were younger, as you were worried about what was going on with your teenage skin. Chocolate lovers are in luck, however, because this old wives’ tale is not necessarily true. However, what you eat can impact what happens in your body, including your skin. Eating a diet high in sugar and processed foods but low in fruits and vegetables can cause inflammation. Inflammation throughout your body can trigger acne flare-ups.
There’s another reason not to drop chocolate from your diet completely. Chocolate may have some health benefits—especially dark chocolate where the concentration of cocoa is 70 percent or higher.
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 inhibiting acid production in the stomach. The only caveat: You may want to avoid eating spicy foods before bed.
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. It’s also important you don’t rinse with hot hair. Here are more of the absolute worst things you can do to your hair.
Old wives’ tale: Put some brandy on your baby’s gums
This is 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. Here are some products you should never use on your baby.
Old wives’ tale: Turkey makes you tired.
Each year on Thanksgiving, as we clean the last bit 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 tryptophan, an amino acid that helps to create melatonin, a brain chemical known for making people tired. But 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’t blame the turkey for your sleepiness.
Up next: 21 food myths you still think are true.
- Duke Health: “Myth or Fact: Should You Wait to Swim After Eating?”
- 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
- Stephen Kronwith, MD, PhD, chief of pediatric ophthalmology at NYU Winthrop Hospital on Long Island
- New York Botanical Garden: “What colors are bees attracted to in the garden?”
- Improving Animal Welfare “
- Arefa Cassobhoy, MD, MPH, medical editor at WebMD
- Applied and Environmental Microbiology: “Longer Contact Times Increase Cross-Contamination of Enterobacter aerogenes from Surfaces to Food”
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Does Coffee Stunt Your Growth?”
- Psychology Learning and Teaching: “Misconceptions about Psychological Science: a review”
- Food Research Institute of the University of Wisconsin: “Review of Epidemiology of Foodborne Listeriosis”
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: “Capsaicin and gastric ulcers”
- Michigan Medicine: “Teething Products”