Romania has a rich oral tradition when it comes to folklore. Throughout history, fairy tales were spread to entertain workers and to teach children life lessons. Superstitions spread quickly, and things like spilling salt was soon a symbol of bad luck. If a knife fell to the floor, it was best to leave it.
Myths began to play a very important role in Romanian culture. And being Romanian, I grew up with them. I also grew up with a doctor as my father, so when it came to medical myths, he made sure I knew the difference between fact and fiction. Here are the top 10 myths that many people still believe, and the truth behind them.
1. “Mă trage curentul.”
Translated as “the current is pulling me,” this is a very common saying among Romanians. The “current” is said to cause anything from the common cold to toothaches; but the truth is that there’s no such thing.
True, a cold breeze can amplify pre-existent problems. For example, if you have muscle pain and you fall asleep in a room with an open window, then you might wake up with a slightly worse version of what you had the previous day. But the idea that you’ll get sick if you go outside with wet hair is 100% myth.
The viruses that cause “the cold” have nothing to do with how exposed you are to cold weather. You are more likely to catch a cold indoors, where the habitat for viruses is a lot more favorable, than outside–even in freezing temperatures.
2. If you read in the dark, you’ll ruin your eyesight.
Our eyes are created so that they can adjust to different light intensities. If it’s dark, the pupils will dilate to capture as much light as possible, and if it’s bright, they’ll shrink. So when you read in the dark, your eyes react in the same way.
But what creates the myth is the fact that when your pupils dilate, the occipital muscles are a lot more strained than when you have light. This strain on the muscles can cause headaches or tiredness, which are temporary, but nothing more.
3. If you shave your hair, it’ll grow back thicker, denser and darker.
Optical illusion is the main factor in creating this myth. If you shave your hair, it can’t grow back more dense, because the number of hair follicles remains the same.
The blade only cuts the tip of the hair, which makes it appear thicker and rougher. But as it grows, it will become softer, and it will be the same as the previous hair strand. It won’t grow darker either, as it is the same exact hair strand, with the same pigment. Shaving can’t affect the hair’s roots.
What gives this illusion is the fact that the new hair hasn’t yet made contact with the sun, or with any chemicals you might use. And if you give your hair time to grow, the darker appearance will go away pretty quickly.
4. If you eat sweets, you’ll get diabetes.
There are two types of diabetes. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease, which appears due to a genetic defect and has no connection to diet. Type 2 appears because of a genetic predisposition and an extremely unhealthy and sedentary lifestyle, which results in insulin resistance and pancreatic insufficiency.
In 2017, 15 studies with a total of 251,261 participants didn’t find any significant effect of sugar on the risk of getting type 2 diabetes. Therefore, you can get diabetes even if you don’t like sweets and you never eat them. On the other hand, you can eat sweets daily, but if you have good genes, are engaging in physical activity, and don’t gain weight, you don’t need to worry.
5. If you walk barefoot, you’ll get a cold or cystitis.
Cystitis is an infection of the bladder, caused by microbes that produce local inflammation and pain. These microbes can come from outside of our bodies, or from inside, through blood. Thus, simply walking barefoot cannot directly transfer these germs to the bladder and cause infection.
As far as catching a cold, there is some truth to this myth, but only if you have a chronic condition. If this is the case, inflammation can reappear from time to time, especially when the body is exposed to any type of cold. However, this is relative from person to person, as everyone has different immune systems. If you’re used to walking barefoot, you will most likely not have any problems, but if you always protect yourself from the cold, you might develop a sensitivity.
6. If your nose bleeds, you need to press the hemorrhaging nostril with your hand and tilt your head backwards.
To combat a nosebleed, almost all Romanians will tilt their heads back, apply pressure to the nose, and lift their hand (opposite to the hemorrhaging nostril) in the air. But this position is completely wrong.
The raised hand only increases the blood drainage in the arm and the tilted head causes all of the blood to go down your throat towards your lungs and stomach, putting you at risk of choking. The correct position is to lean your head forward, so that the blood exits your nostrils through the front, thus leaving space for the nasal airways to function. It’s important to apply pressure for around 10 minutes, and if the bleeding doesn’t stop after 20 minutes, seek medical care.
7. If you drink cold liquids or eat ice cream, you’ll get tonsillitis.
We have good news for all the ice cream lovers out there: The only medical side effect linked to ice cream is obesity (and only when you completely overdo it). Cold food and drinks actually reduce inflammation, and tonsillitis is simply the inflammation of the tonsils.
Tonsillitis, in most cases, is caused by viruses or bacteria, but never by cold liquids or ice cream. In fact, ice cream is often recommended by doctors, as the cold reduces the pain and inflammation of a sore throat.
8. If you crack your fingers, you’ll get arthritis, or your hands will shake when you’re old.
Arthritis means the degeneration of articulations, and this normally happens as you age. But for some people, they experience an early onset of arthritis, and it’s often blamed on the cracking of knuckles. Several studies, however, have proven this to be untrue.
There are many theories about where the cracking sound comes from, but the most popular is that it’s caused by gas bubbles within the intra-articular fluid–the result of negative pressure formed through the sudden parting of bones that form the knuckle. But even though this vibration is intense, it doesn’t lead to deterioration. The only slight downside to cracking your knuckles: it can reduce the power of your grip or injure your tendons or other articulatory structures.
9. If you cross your eyes, you’ll get strabismus.
Almost every Romanian kid has heard the phrase, “If you cross your eyes for too long, they’ll stay like that.” Well, that’s just not true.
Strabismus, the medical term for when eyes cannot maintain proper alignment, is usually determined by preexistent ocular pathologies, neurological pathologies or genetics. We cannot by ourselves influence the position of our eyes–only temporarily and voluntarily.
Our eyes have six muscles which allow us to look in different directions and even cross our eyes. If you cross your eyes for a long period of time, in the worst case scenario you’ll have some ocular spasms, and your eyes might feel tired from the effort they put to move inward. But these effects disappear in approximately an hour.
10. If you have a fever or a cold, you need to take antibiotics.
Fevers are an inflammatory phenomenon, and not all inflammations are infections. Therefore, not all fevers are caused by infections. Even more, infections can be both viral and bacterial. The most common ones are viral, but antibiotics only treat the bacterial ones.
If you take antibiotics for a viral fever, then you destroy your intestinal flora, which is full of good bacteria that aids in a healthy immune system. Fevers should only be treated when they are above 38 degrees (temperature measured at your armpit), and the first step would be to treat it with over-the-counter medicine, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
Another reason why antibiotics are not recommended for viral fevers is because you can build up a resistance to them. If a bacteria comes in contact with an antibiotic multiple times, then it will adapt so that it can be immune to that antibiotic. The problem is that one day, when you might actually need a treatment that includes that antibiotic, it won’t work and it will complicate the situation. Antibiotics used responsibly can save lives though.
*This article is based off the author’s illustrated book, 15 Romanian Medical Myths. On Thursday, March 7th, you can find copies of the book (in Romanian), as well as personally illustrated magnets at a table in the hallway outside the cafeteria. We’ll be selling both items during morning break and lunch. All proceeds will go to helping sick children with insufficient funds pay for their surgeries.