When Doctors Don’t Know the Best Medical Advice
Some of their outdated tips may compromise your care or sabotage your health goals. Here, medical advice you can safely ignore.
Jamie ChungDoctors help bodies heal and stay healthy, but they’re still human. So your physician might not have gotten every memo on the latest findings from health research done in the past few years. As a result, some of her recommendations may be out-of-date, unhelpful, or even harmful. Case in point: Although research has proved that cloudy mucus often isn’t a sign of a bacterial infection, physicians are six times as likely to prescribe antibiotics to patients whose nasal discharge has a greenish tint compared with those whose discharge is clear.
We’ve combed through the most recent research and consulted experts on the latest thinking in nutrition, fitness, sleep, back pain, and more. Read on to learn what long-standing advice you should trash—and the smarter, science-backed tips you should replace it with.
Old Medical Advice: Many dentists advise their patients to scrub away cavity-causing plaque as soon as possible. Nine in ten Americans believe that it’s important to brush immediately after each meal, according to an American Dental Association survey.
New Medical Advice: Rinse your mouth with water immediately after eating, but wait 30 minutes before you brush. Making a beeline for the sink may harm your teeth by rubbing in acids from foods and beverages such as citrus fruit, vinegar, and soda. This could wear down the tooth enamel and underlying dentin. “Similar to scrubbing detergent into a pan, brushing can rub in acid and lead to damage,” says Steven Ghareeb, DDS, a spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry and a dentist based in Charleston, West Virginia.
Jamie ChungOld Medical Advice: If your mucus is green, you have a bacterial infection and need an antibiotic. Many doctors still believe this myth because it seems biologically plausible, says Rachel Vreeman, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Indiana University and coauthor of Don’t Cross Your Eyes … They’ll Get Stuck That Way. A yellow or greenish-looking nasal discharge suggests that bacteria are present and producing pus. But the science has shown this isn’t always true.
New Medical Advice: Don’t press your doctor for antibiotics. The tinted mucus is a normal by-product of the healing process. To fight an infection, white blood cells release enzymes to kill invaders. Some enzymes contain iron, which has a greenish color. Cloudy mucus doesn’t automatically signify a bacterial infection. “You’re likely battling a virus, which will go away on its own,” says Aaron Carroll, MD, Dr. Vreeman’s coauthor.
So why does your doc still break out the prescription pad? Some physicians just assume patients want an antibiotic because they often request one. But overprescribing has consequences. “Giving people more antibiotics can lead to resistance,” says Dr. Carroll. If your doctor suggests an antibiotic, ask if it’s really necessary.
Jamie ChungOld Medical Advice: Use hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol to clean and disinfect a cut or scrape. These cleansing agents destroy infection-causing bacteria. Some medical centers and even the National Institutes of Health website advise stowing a bottle of either one in your first aid kit to clean wounds.
New Medical Advice: Rinse cuts with soap and water instead. Hydrogen peroxide and alcohol slow down the healing process by also destroying the good cells essential for tissue repair, says Dr. Carroll. Smarter first aid protocol: Wash the wound with mild soap and running water for three to five minutes, and then apply a thin layer of antibiotic ointment to prevent infection. In a classic study published in the Journal of Family Practice, this method helped infected blisters mend faster than other approaches, including rinsing with hydrogen peroxide. Finally, apply a bandage to keep the area clean and moist. Not covering a wound is another common mistake, says Dr. Carroll. “Airing out a cut promotes cell death, and the resulting scab can lead to scarring,” he explains. Once and for all, cover up that cut for faster healing.
Jamie ChungOld Medical Advice: Take medication at the first sign of a fever. Not only does a rising temperature cause chills and discomfort, but an untamed fever may also lead to scary side effects such as febrile seizures in children. That’s why it’s important, especially for children, to take a fever reducer right away.
New Medical Advice: Take medication only in the case of a high fever. Low-grade fevers are not only safe, but they also help your body battle infection—so you can recover faster. “A higher body temperature stimulates the immune system,” says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. It also weakens invading microbes, so they’re easier to fight off. In general, until your fever climbs higher than 101°F (or 102°F for most children older than three months), don’t treat it. Of course, if you’re very uncomfortable, check in with your doctor.
Valerie Janssen/FoodPix/JupiterimagesOld Medical Advice: Limit your egg intake to protect your heart. Since the 1970s, cardiologists have warned people that egg yolks are high in cholesterol, which can clog arteries and pave the way for heart disease. A study published last summer in the journal Atherosclerosis suggested that eggs are almost as harmful to your ticker as cigarettes.
New Medical Advice: Passing on omelets isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. A review of studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that egg consumption in healthy people didn’t raise heart disease risk. Other research showed that even those with high cholesterol can safely eat an egg a day. The reason: Cholesterol found in such foods as eggs and shrimp has a negligible effect on cholesterol levels in your bloodstream, says Dr. Katz. The actual cholesterol-raising culprits are dietary saturated and trans fats, which spur your liver to churn out cholesterol. As for the recent research maligning eggs, the flawed study asked patients to recall how many eggs they ate and didn’t factor in lifestyle factors like diet and exercise.
All told, this misconception is worth unscrambling. With 164 milligrams of cholesterol, a medium egg falls well within the American Heart Association’s recommended limit of 300 mg per day (200 mg for those with heart disease). The yolk is loaded with important nutrients, including brain-protective choline and lutein, an antioxidant that is believed to promote eye health.
Photos.com/JupiterImagesOld Medical Advice: Avoid nuts, seeds, and corn if you have diverticulosis. For decades, doctors were taught that people with diverticulosis—a digestive disorder marked by small pouches in the lining of the colon—should steer clear of small, hard foods, which could lodge in these pockets, triggering symptoms like pain and bleeding. “Even today, I see patients who haven’t eaten popcorn in 15 years,” says Anish Sheth, MD, a gastroenterologist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
New Medical Advice: Go ahead, snack on that trail mix. According to a study of nearly 50,000 people in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the previously banned foods didn’t raise the risk of complications, and people with the condition could safely eat them. On the contrary, eating nuts or popcorn actually lowered the risk of developing the disorder. “These foods are high in fiber, which helps to keep you regular,” explains Dr. Sheth. “And one theory is that, over time, the pressure of constipation may lead to weak spots in the colon, much like those that develop in an old garden hose.” By eating more high-fiber foods, you may avoid becoming one of the 50 percent of Americans over the age of 60 with the condition.
© iStockphoto.comOld Medical Advice: Eat five or six small meals a day to lose weight. After research published in such prestigious journals as the New England Journal of Medicine and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that frequent mini meals better control blood sugar and cholesterol levels, some experts claimed that this eating pattern could also boost metabolism and help you drop pounds.
New Medical Advice: This eating pattern may actually cause overeating. Scientists from Purdue University put men on a low-calorie, high-protein diet and found that those who were served six smaller meals felt hungrier (and didn’t lose any more weight) than those given three larger ones. “Small portions don’t bring on a substantial feeling of fullness,” explains study author Heather Leidy, PhD, now an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri. The desire to eat persists, she says, making that midafternoon cookie seem more tempting. You may be better off with three square meals a day and a small protein-packed snack in the afternoon, like apple slices with peanut butter or Greek yogurt with berries.
© Thinkstock / PhotoObjects.netOld Medical Advice: Sit up straight. Keeping your spine perfectly straight while sitting can prevent aches and fend off future back problems.
New Medical Advice: Kicking back may be the best strategy after all. When Canadian researchers from the University of Alberta performed MRI scans on volunteers, they found that reclining at a 135-degree angle put less strain on spinal disks than sitting at a 90-degree angle. “Over time, excess pressure can cause your disks to bulge and lead to an injury such as a herniated disk,” says Evan Johnson, DPT, director of physical therapy at the Spine Center at New York- Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.
While you’re sitting at a desk, hold your head in line with your shoulders and your hips, allowing for a slight forward curve in your back, and lean slightly back. Adjust your chair so your back is supported. “When we do checks with the hospital staff, I’m always surprised by the number of doctors who don’t sit properly,” Johnson says.
© IT Stock/Polka Dot/ThinkstockOld Medical Advice: Do cardio exercises to lose weight. Cardio exercise has been the gold standard for shedding pounds since the concept was introduced to mainstream America by physician Kenneth Cooper in his 1968 book, Aerobics, which coined the term and publicized the importance of cardiovascular fitness for controlling weight and promoting health. We’ve been jogging, running, biking, and elliptical training ever since.
New Medical Advice: Science now shows that quality trumps quantity: Short bursts of intense physical activity called intervals are the best workout for weight loss. In a study from the University of New South Wales, in Australia, women who did 20 minutes of sprints on a stationary bike (eight seconds of all-out effort followed by 12 seconds of recovery) three times a week shed nearly three times as much fat after about four months as did a group of women who performed 40 minutes of moderate-intensity cycling.
Intervals torch more calories than regular cardio and stoke metabolism so you keep burning post-workout.
Plus, a shorter session at the gym means you’re less likely to overeat afterward. Recent research published in the American Journal of Physiology found that people who logged an hour of exercise a day shed the same amount of weight as those who did half as much, probably because those who worked out longer ate and rested more throughout the day. For best results, combine intervals with strength training. Lifting weights increases lean muscle mass, which can rev metabolism too.
Old Medical Advice: Catch up on lost sleep during the weekend. Chronic lack of shut-eye is linked to a bevy of health issues, such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Because sleep is so crucial, experts often advise that you make up the deficit whenever you can.
New Medical Advice: Rise within an hour of your usual time every day. Snoozing until noon on Saturday won’t compensate for a string of sleep-starved weeknights. So concluded researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who had subjects sleep for ten hours after getting the equivalent of 5.6 hours of sleep the day before. The scientists found that participants’ attention spans and reaction times grew progressively worse. After three weeks of this routine, subjects’ response time on tests of brain and motor functions was ten times slower than before the study started. That’s because one good night of rest can’t make up for chronic sleep loss.
“Sleeping in throws off your circadian rhythm,” says J. Todd Arnedt, PhD, director of the behavioral sleep medicine program at the University of Michigan. “You’ll have a harder time nodding off the next night, which sets you up for more tossing and turning.”
To get back on track with a new sleep schedule, open those curtains first thing (exposure to light in the morning helps wake you up), and hit the sack as soon as you begin to feel tired at night. Chances are your bedtime will be a little on the early side, so you’ll gradually catch up on lost shut-eye after a few days.
© iStockphoto/ThinkstockOld Medical Advice: Eat oatmeal for breakfast. It’s low in fat, full of fiber, and a good source of healthy whole grains.
New Medical Advice: Feast on lean protein in the morning, and you’ll eat less all day. According to an International Journal of Obesity study, people who started their day with a meal that included protein-packed pancakes felt fuller—and ate 26 percent fewer calories at lunch—than those served a plain stack. Protein encourages the release of peptide YY, the gut hormone that sends a satiety signal to the brain, says the University of Missouri’s Leidy, who also led this research project. Pump up your basic bowl of oatmeal by topping it with nuts or chia seeds. Or stir in protein powder, low-fat milk, or pasteurized egg whites.