9 Summer Health Myths—Debunked

Fact vs. Fiction

Should you swim with a full stomach? Let scrapes air out? Tinkle on a jellyfish sting? There once may have been some wisdom behind the advice (although probably not with the jellyfish sting), but many summer suggestions are outdated. With the lowdown from top experts, find out which warm-weather beliefs are based on real common sense—and which are complete nonsense.

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Myth: Put butter on a sunburn.

Truth: While butter’s an accessible cool salve for a hot burn from cooking, you’re better off saving your stick for your buns. “Butter is just moisturizer with no specific burn-healing properties,” says Margaret E. Parsons, MD, an associate clinical professor in the dermatology department at the University of California, Davis. A better home cure? “Cool ice-milk compresses (crushed ice and milk on towels) are soothing,” she says. “The coolness is anti-inflammatory, and the milk is mild and not acidic, so it won’t irritate skin.” Ibuprofen, another anti-inflammatory, can also be helpful taken with water. “Then, a day or two after the burn’s cooled down, keep the skin well moisturized to help it heal,” explains Dr. Parsons. While you could use butter at this point, why waste food? Stick with petroleum jelly. But if your sunburn blisters or swells, see a doctor for topical steroid creams or oral steroids, suggests Dr. Parsons.

Myth: Poison ivy is contagious.

Truth: This is one rash that won’t rub off on others. “You react to poison ivy and its friends poison oak and sumac when the plant’s chemical urushiol (you-ROO-shee-all) gets on your skin,” explains Dr. Parsons. “Once the chemical is washed off your skin, you can’t spread the rash by scratching it or scratching others. Since the rash often develops two to three days after exposure, the chemical is almost certainly washed off,” she says. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), this delayed reaction can give the illusion that the rash is spreading when it’s not. To skirt an itchy situation, Dr. Parsons suggests immediately tossing clothes in the washing machine and washing exposed skin and possible contact areas with soap with some detergent.

Myth: Saltwater heals wounds.

Truth: Even though your doctor may use saline, you shouldn’t rinse scrapes and cuts in the sea. “What we use is carefully made, pure water with salt content, like what the body produces,” explains Sandra Fryhofer, MD, a past president of the American College of Physicians and a clinical associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Saltwater from the ocean can actually irritate a wound and contain infection-causing bacteria. Instead, Dr. Fryhofer recommends cleaning scrapes and cuts with “clear, clean water—tap is fine for most wounds—and mild soap.”

Myth: Getting a base tan prevents sunburns.

Truth: So this isn’t a complete lie: “There are some skin types that burn less once they have some tan,” says Dr. Parsons. But don’t go there: “It’s a false sense of security because the damage from tanning is done whether you burn or not.” That’s because UV rays from the sun and tanning beds alter skin cells’ DNA, potentially causing skin cancer, according to the AAD.

Myth: Too much air conditioning can make you sick.

Truth: This myth has its roots in the early 20th century when researchers studied how chilly temperatures affected the nasal cavity’s mucous membranes. They speculated that this could lower resistance to infections. But as we know today, “a chill doesn’t cause a cold,” says Dr. Fryhofer. “You have to be exposed to a virus to get a cold.” But she adds: “If the vent isn’t clean, it can expose you to mold that can worsen allergies.” She advises checking and changing your air conditioner vent every six months to get relief from allergy symptoms.

Myth: Urinating on a jellyfish sting helps relieve pain.

Truth: Despite what Friends may have you believe, all this does is leave a stink. As for what you should do if you’re stung, Dr. Fryhofer recommends splashing seawater on the affected area to remove any remaining jellyfish parts—there may be tentacles or venom sacs left behind. Avoid fresh water and rubbing a towel on the area, since they can cause the tentacles to release more venom. Next, use a credit card to brush off remaining parts. Then, if you can get your hands on vinegar, wash the area with it for at least 30 seconds to neutralize the sting. A paste of seawater with baking soda is also helpful, so consider stashing baking soda in your beach bag for your next trip. Last, soak the area in hot water to relieve pain. You can also apply soothing calamine lotion if it’s available, but don’t use a pressure bandage. Most stings don’t require a hospital visit, says Dr. Fryhofer, but if you have a lot of stings or experience difficulty breathing, nausea, dizziness or fever, seek care as soon as possible.

Myth: Don’t swim on a full stomach.

Truth: The old wives’ tale said right after you eat, your muscles don’t work as well because your blood is busy breaking down food, explains Dr. Fryhofer. “That doesn’t happen, but it makes sense that after eating a lot, you’re not going to be as comfortable exercising.” So whether you’ll swim laps after nibbling on a sandwich is up to you.

Myth: Mosquitoes bite people who have “sweet” blood.

Truth: “There’s some evidence that some people are more susceptible to mosquito bites,” reveals Dr. Fryhofer, but it’s not necessarily because their blood tastes better. So who’s more likely to get bitten? People with type O blood seem more susceptible to mosquito landings because they emit an odor that mosquitoes like, says Dr. Fryhofer.

To ward off those blood-suckers, wear long sleeves and long pants when outside and use DEET-containing repellent. Just avoid spraying it on glasses and watch faces and in your eyes. Follow package directions closely, and wash your hands after use and off your skin before bed, unless you’ll still be exposed to mosquitoes. If you’ve had adverse reactions to DEET, spray Picaridin-containing repellent or wear permethrin-treated clothing you can buy in sporting goods stores. Before going on vacation, wear the special clothing to check if your skin is sensitive to the repellent, recommends Dr. Fryhofer.

Myth: Let scrapes air out until they form a scab.

Truth: “I hear this one every day!” says Dr. Parsons. “I can only presume that a scab may have been somewhat protective when petroleum jelly wasn’t available.” And skin cells grow best in a thin layer of ointment. “Scabs make it harder for skin cells to grow. Plus, a scabbed wound is more likely to scar.” But before you apply the ointment and a bandage, clean the wound with clean water and mild soap. Leave the heavy-duty hydrogen peroxide to the professionals.

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