Posted by: sayamika, the killer bunny | 2007 February 20

Old wives’ tales

Some of the most basic experiences of humanity are those we deal with as medical professionals: getting sick, getting better, day-to-day protection of health, and dealing with death. Every culture has its own ways of dealing with health and sickness…. they must, by definition.

Why folk theories of life, sickness, and death constantly amaze me, I don’t know, but they do.

An onion for earache…. I have no idea what you are meant to do with the onion.

Carrots make you see in the dark…. apparently we can blame the British RAF for this one!

Use a snail to get rid of warts…. just ick. I guess it’s cheaper than Compound W.

If you sit on cold concrete you’ll get hemorrhoids…. I can’t find a source for this one. Maybe it’s the drinkers who wind up sitting on the kerb all night and who eventually get liver cirrhosis, portal hypertension, and then hemorrhoids? I have clearly thought about this too much.

If you go out with wet hair you’ll get pneumonia…. “But it’s 38 degrees C out.” “It doesn’t matter.” “???”

If you masturbate you’ll go blind…. I think guide dogs would be infinitely more popular in that case.

Go out in the cold and you’ll catch cold….. how about that? My husband still talks about “catching a chill.”


I was thinking about all of this after being directed by Dr. Crippen to read in badscience about another one of those people who know nothing but know how to dress it up with buzzwords to make herself a wodge of money from people desperately trying to wrest control of their bodies from a medical science that has gotten too complicated to understand anymore.

There is such mistrust of the medical profession these days, exemplified by the whole MMR and autism scare. Which, incidentally, Wakefield is still making money off, currently touring the UK offering “new treatment options” to desperate parents.

Parents are afraid to get their kids vaccinated for anything. They think it will overwhelm their immune systems. They don’t know why doctors push so hard to get kids vaccinated. But I know why.

From emedicine, an excellent reference site:

Epiglottitis is an acute inflammation of the epiglottis and the structures surrounding it including the aryepiglottic folds and the arytenoid soft tissue. It can be a severe, life-threatening disease of the upper airway. Though historically a pediatric disease, recent epidemiology suggests that it is now mostly a disease that occurs in adults.

The spectrum of this disease has gone through significant changes since the introduction of the Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine in 1985. This disease had occurred most frequently in children aged 2-7 years and most commonly was caused by Hib….

In 1985, the Hib vaccine was introduced in the United States, which dramatically decreased the incidence of epiglottis. In one study done at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the frequency was 10.9 per 10,000 before 1990. After the vaccine was introduced, the frequency dropped to 1.8 per 10,000 admissions……

In centers with pediatric expertise and defined protocols, the mortality rate approaches zero and the morbidity rate less than 4%. Delay in diagnosis is associated with a 9-18% mortality rate. Management of patients without intubation is associated with a 6% mortality rate.

Or in other words, prior to the introduction of the Hemophilus (Hib) vaccine, about once a week the ER would see a couple of frantic parents with their child who was clearly distressed, with their head held just so, and drooling because it hurt too much to swallow and if they did swallow they couldn’t breathe.

The ER staff would put them in a room on their own, have the parents sit with them and talk soothingly. The doctor and nurse would as much as possible leave the family alone for the precious minutes it took to prepare everything they would need to make the child unconscious and place a tube down the child’s throat. Because the instant the child panicked he or she would choke and then there would be only a minute or two to get an airway before the child was at risk of irreparable damage or death.

And this used to happen just about every week. Now, it’s rare.


That’s just Hib. There’s also pneumococcus, which causes meningitis. Polio. Tetanus. Whooping cough. I had that as an adult and it hurts. Take my advice and get a booster, it really is worth the trouble.

I didn’t go into medicine to scare, control, hurt, or take advantage of people. I actually care what happens to the kid in front of me. I studied for eight years to get to this point, and I still have a load of training to go. Why am I less trust worthy than some guy on TV touting his *expensive* *exclusive* nutritional supplements, that do things which modern medicine hasn’t been able to?



My favourite wisdom came from my grandmother, who died at a doddery 96 years of age. She got quite forgetful in her old age, and would tell you “I got a touch of that old-timer’s disease.”

It took me two years in medical school to figure out that she meant Alzheimer’s. I like her version better.


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