5 Dangerous Medical Myths

A doctor pressing a stethoscope against his male patient's back
Myths can steer people toward illness, hardship and even death. From tetanus shots to colonoscopies, it’s very easy to spread misinformation that the average person can’t always readily distinguish from the truth.

What are some of the most common medical myths that may be sabotaging your health?

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Myth 1: Doctors don’t play favorites.

What is one of the greatest threat in people’s lives when it comes to their health? A lack of assertiveness with doctors and other medical personnel.

Experts agree that as patients, we like to believe that physicians treat everyone with equal care and concern, but they don’t. There are inherent biases in health care, whether it’s racism or sexism or ageism.

Such discrimination means some groups of patients get shortchanged when they most need the best care.

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For example, obese women often receive inadequate doses of chemotherapy because doctors discount them for being overweight.

The solution? People should see as many different physicians as possible until they find one who takes their complaints seriously and shows dedication to healing them. They also need to speak up and insist on attention and care from doctors and nurses.

When it comes to navigating the health care system, hesitance and embarrassment are not conducive to good health. If you feel you need the support, feel free to bring someone with you who you can trust to speak for you.

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Myth 2: You can skip annual check-ups.

Wrong! Times have become confusing as every few months or so, new medical news comes out saying you no longer need to worry about certain annual exams, such as pap smears. However, you should still visit a primary care doctor every year and ensure that their services and tests are tailored to your sex, age and risks based on family history.

Most doctors also still stress the importance of routine checks, such as blood pressure and urinalysis, which help detect problems before they turn into crises.

Because many of us forget to schedule yearly exams, pick a memorable date, like your birthday, to make the appointment.

Myth 3: Adults don’t need shots.

Sorry, but shots are not just for kids. Some 70,000 U.S. adults die every year from causes that vaccinations could have prevented.

Many of us think that once we’ve completed the childhood series of shots for polio, measles and the like, we’re done. But we may need tetanus booster shots, human papillomavirus (HPV) injections to prevent cervical cancer, and even a vaccine against meningitis, a deadly bacterial infection of the brain that tends to strike on college campuses.

If your parents dropped the ball on childhood vaccinations for diseases such as chicken pox and measles, you’re not out of danger.

Talk to your doctor about getting immunized,  and check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for a detailed rundown of what you need.

Myth 4: Only old people get heart disease and stroke.

Heart attacks strike only elderly, paunchy middle-aged men, right? Not necessarily. Strokes, which occur when there’s a stoppage of blood flow to the brain, also can affect young people.

If you’re not a member of either of those groups, you could still be at risk.

Everyone should begin heart checks at age 20, the American Heart Association says. That’s because problems that lead to arteriosclerosis, the buildup that blocks blood flow to the heart, can start when you’re young − a possible consequence of factors such as a fat-laden diet, smoking and obesity.

People should be tested for high blood pressure, cholesterol count and body mass index (BMI). They also need to be aggressive about getting to the emergency room at the first sign of danger.

Whatever your age, if you experience signs of a heart attack (pressure in the chest or pain radiating from the chest) or stroke (a sudden numbness on one side of the body), get medical help immediately.

Symptoms can also differ by gender. In women, heart attacks are often preceded by jaw pain, a feeling of breathing icy air or overwhelming fatigue. Men experience pain and  intense pressure in their chest. Call an ambulance if you have any of these symptoms.

Another tip: never drive yourself to the E.R. When you arrive with sirens, you’ll get treatment faster.

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Myth 5: Natural means safe.

Think natural ingredients are automatically safe? Think again. Example: there are two natural, plant-derived substances we all know about that can end lives: tobacco and arsenic.

So what about the hundreds of holistic remedies and diet supplements, from wheat grass juice and blue-green algae to biotin capsules, that are commonly found at most health food stores?

There aren’t easy answers, most experts say, because most such products haven’t received the extensive clinical testing that prescription drugs go through before entering the market.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require such trials for natural substances.

If you decide to try natural products, take these sensible steps:

  • Talk with your conventional doctor. Tell him or her what you’re taking and how much, and who else (for example, an herbalist or homeopathic professional) has been giving you advice.
  • Remember that everything you put in your mouth can affect something else you’re taking, which is why your doctor needs to have all the information before giving you prescription drugs or anesthesia for surgical procedures.
  • Also, do your homework before you try any natural remedies. “It’s best to look at the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition or the Tufts University website.

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