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Truth or Consequences? Old Wives' Tales and the Trouble They Can Cause

Updated on October 9, 2017
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Ms. Inglish has 30 years experience in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, history, and aerospace education for USAF Civil Air Patrol.


Information and Misinformation: An Oral Tradition

In working with medical clients, academic students, and amateur and professional athletes, I have found a substantial amount of misinformation existing about a variety of subjects.

A certain amount of this misinformation has been passed down from one generation to the next via a type of mythology that is called "Old Wives' Tales." Presumably, this material was passed on to the next generation of women by the previous elderwomen (old wives) of the community.

Some folk remedies do actually work well, and some common-sense advice from the pioneers and farmers of old is truly useful. However, here is a list of Old Wives' Tales that I have found to be false, or mostly false, for myself and for my clients over the years.

Health and Wellness Fact and Fiction

  • Tea Tree Oil works for a variety of infections and injuries.

This is true for me. Many people think it is a useless home remedy, but it has helped me several times. When I suffered an injury that severed my left ankle 50% from my leg, Tea Tree Oil reduced swelling after surgery and healed the wound very quickly.

Tea Tree Oil has completely eliminated an infection building at the root of a tooth at one time. A single application caused immediate reduction in swelling so quickly that a tiny foreign object popped out of the gum. It was a tiny piece of a fruit stem that had worked its way in between the gum and tooth.

This oil has worked for skin rashes as well.

  • You can get lead poisoning from a pencil.

This is false, because modern pencils use graphite for the "lead" and contain no lead at all.

I am not poison.
I am not poison. | Source

False. One client I knew insisted on using butter on a burn and went to the hospital later that day with 2nd degree burns.

So, this tale is absolutely not true and can be dangerous, because the heat that caused the burn will continue to penetrate until it completely dissipates, all the way to the bone if intense enough, unless it is stopped by cold (ice or cold water). Salves can help heal the burned skin later, but butter will not do it. Butter, margarine, lard, and mayonnaise are all organic, can hold in the damaging heat, rot, and attract harmful bacteria and resulting infections.

I have read in dimmer light for years because bright lights hurt my eyes. Dim light can add to eye strain or fatigue in some readers, however, but this should not be permanent.

In my own case, my eyesight has improved over the last 10 years and my astigmatism has also reduced, by my optometrist's certification!

  • Pulling out a gray hair causes two to grow in its place.

This is false. So far, I have only experienced some gray hairs during times when my nutrition was not a priority. They fell out when my nutrition improved and were replaced by my natureal coloring.

Pulling out a gray hair causes two to grow in its place?
Pulling out a gray hair causes two to grow in its place? | Source
  • Coffee or caffeine will stunt your growth.

This is false, unless coffee caffeine is replacing healthy foods and beverages to a large extent in a child's diet.

Caffeine can cause a woman's baby to be born with a cleft palate in come cases, however, because caffeine can prevent calcium absorption. Some scientists have stated that taking vitamin C will offset this process, because vitamin C increases calcium absorption. One person I knew refused to drink milk during pregnancy, and only coffee. Her first baby, according to her doctor, had a palate anomaly and was fortunate not to have a cleft palate. The second baby's teeth crumbled and fell out as soon as they came in. This child's adult teeth also crumbled out.

  • Going outside with wet hair will cause you to catch a cold.

False. I have NEVER caught cold from being outside and wet. I took my 3rd degree black belt test outside in the winter over 3 days in January and 3 days in February one year. It was a normally cold winter and I had to stand in a small river, over mid-calf high in ice water with ice chunks in it for several hours. I did not become ill at all.

Only viruses cause colds. However, if you become chilled and fatigued outside with wet hair, your immune system will be somewhat depressed so that you'll more likely catch a cold (ref: December 2005 issue of Family Practice).

Preventive and Other Tales

  • Carrots in your diet improve your eyesight.

Not directly. Carotene in carrots converts to vitamin A in the body and this helps to maintain healthy eyesight and other bodily functions. I eat carrots frequently and they may help my eyes. My eyesight has improved during the last 10 years and so has my astigmatism.

In December 28, 2005 JAMA , the Journal of the American Medical Association printed research that found that nutrients like beta-carotene could reduce the risk of macular degeneration (progressive blindness) in senior citizens.

  • You will be healthier if you sleep in a bed with your head pointed south.

Not for me. I sleep best if the bed is aligned east-west.

  • Don't eat chocolate, because it will cause acne.

I have never experienced that, but my doctor told me that it is the insects ground up in the chocolate, not the chocolate itself, that causes skin eruptions.

Chocolate is said to make people feel good - even as though they are in love - but all it does for me is make me nauseous!

Sure Cures?

  • Coffee will cure a hangover.

Since the blood sugar level drops sharply sometime after alcohol consumption, contributing to the hangover, I have advised people to eat ice cream before going to sleep after drinking alcohol. That works for some of them.

Research in the December 24, 2005 issue of the British Medical Journal states that no home remedies work at all.

However, a hangover often includes headache, dehydration, and low blood sugar, so these things can be treated with headache remedies, food, and water -- plus rest.

Interestingly, one alcoholic I knew would have "dry" periods in which he did not drink alcohol; but during these periods, he consumed heavy amounts of sugar (more than one 5-lb bag for coffee alone per week). When he was drinking alcohol, he ate little sugar. I think that ice cream remedy might help more people.

  • Lemon and whiskey will cure a cough.

They may work for others, but all they did for me was to cause regurgitation.

When combined with horehound (an herb), sugar, and other ingredients, cooked, cooled, and fermented, the mixture caused a convulsion when I was a child. It was very unpleasant.

Other Old Wives' Tales

  • Hair grows back faster, darker, and thicker when shaved off.

I have found just the opposite to be true.

  • Rats are born as rodents and after they become adults, they change into bats.

False. I heard this from several of my GED students, so I took the class to the zoo where they were able to learn that bats are born as bats.

I was never a rat!
I was never a rat! | Source

© 2007 Patty Inglish MS


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