Debunking Flu Cures and Toothbrush Myths

We've all heard them — feed a cold, starve a fever; if a pregnant woman's carrying low, it's a boy; if she's carrying high, it's a girl; chocolate causes acne.

Myths about health and healing have cascaded from the mouths of overbearing mothers and well-meaning aunts for centuries.

But now, thanks to New York Times reporter Anahad O'Connor, the truth behind these old wives' tales and urban legends is finally being revealed.

Fascinated by the idea of debunking these myths, O'Connor began a column for the newspaper's weekly Science Times section called Really? [Insert Urban Legend/Old Wives' Tale Here].

After years of investigating such topics as "green tea can help you lose weight," "standing too close to the microwave is dangerous" and "duct tape can remove warts," he transformed his popular column into a new book entitled "Never Shower in a Thunderstorm: Surprising Facts and Misleading Myths About Our Health and the World We Live In."

"We thought, 'What if we took the Science Times concept and applied it to these quirky, more fun old wives' tales, medical rumors and claims that we all hear about, but never actually get addressed," he explained in an interview with ABC News.

"So, I started doing this column and started finding that many of the stories behind how the claims came about were actually just as interesting as the answers to them, and so the column snowballed into this book."

Interestingly, O'Connor says all of the topics tackled in his column and in the book are backed by real scientific data. Yup, that means that there are scientists out there who get paid to have people drink gallons of green tea, stick their foreheads against microwaves or rip duct tape off their skin, all in the name of "research."

"Doing the column and the book was actually lot of fun," he said. "A lot of people don't realize that there are a lot of scientists out there investigating old wives' tales and these medical rumors. There are scientists scouring nursing homes trying to find out if lifelong knuckle crackers really have higher rates of arthritis in their hands. So, part of my job, is to go out there and find these studies and talk to these scientists and get answers."

And no, O'Connor says, cracking your knuckles does not cause arthritis.

Finding Real Dangers in the Myths

Inquisitive by nature, O'Connor admits that his own fascination with these myths was what drove him to investigate in the first place.

"One of the most surprising questions for me is the one that actually gave the book its title," he said. "When I was growing up, my mother would always tell me, 'Get out of the shower,' or 'Don't talk on the phone. There's a thunderstorm outside.' And I thought this was just her way of getting me out of the shower or keeping me from racking up the phone bill, but I actually decided to address this question because so many people were asking me about it."

"I was shocked to find out that it was actually true. Every year in the United States, something like 10 to 20 people are electrocuted indoors while showering or talking on the phone or handling an appliance [during a thunderstorm]."

In fact, "Never Shower in a Thunderstorm" even cites an example of a woman who was brushing her teeth during a storm, got electrocuted and narrowly escaped death thanks to her slippers.

"A woman was actually brushing her teeth and she was touching the faucet and, at that exact moment, her house was struck by lightening and the electricity traveled through her plumbing, went through her faucet, and into her and actually exited through her rear end. This is no lie. And she lived to tell about it," O'Connor said. "Her doctors said what saved her was, she was actually wearing rubber slippers which probably prevented the electricity from traveling through to the ground."

The book also provides detailed answers to other age-old myths, such as sex can hinder athletic performance. O'Connor says that the opposite is actually true.

"Sex can actually improve your performance. It can actually increase your dexterity. It can calm you down, increase our accuracy," he said.

Never go swimming right after a meal? "There really is no truth to this one," he said.

What about eating late at night will cause you to gain weight? "Studies have shown, pretty conclusively, that a calorie in the morning is the same as a calorie at night. … People who eat late at night tend to do so after starving themselves through the day, and then, when nighttime finally rolls around, their hunger catches up with them and they end up reaching for the closest thing."

Ultimately, O'Connor says, his book has "something for everyone" and, unlike other myth books, "Never Shower in a Thunderstorm" explains the true story behind these claims, how they came about and, in some instances, the proper procedures for dealing with a situation. For example, if bitten by a snake, don't tie a tourniquet around your arm and attempt to suck the venom out.

There are hundreds, even thousands of old wives' tales, but here is the "Cliff's Notes" version of a few of O'Connor's favorites:

Q: Do antiperspirants cause cancer?
A: No.

Q: Is bottled water really cleaner than what comes out of the tap?
A: Yes and no.

Q: Can toothbrushes spread disease?
A: Yes.

Q: Can the flu vaccine actually give you the flu?
A: No.

Q: Can really help you beat a cold?
A: Yes and no.

Q: Is chicken soup actually good for a cold?
A: Absolutely.

Q: Does cracking your knuckles cause arthritis?
A: No.

Q: Does reading in the dark actually damage your eyes?
A: No.

Q: Will eating poppy seeds make you fail a drug test?
A: No.

Q: Do you lose most of your body heat through your head?
A: No.

Q: Does shaving your head make your hair grow back thicker?
A: No.

Q: Do identical twins have identical fingerprints?
A: No.

Q: Can you really catch something from a toilet seat?
A: Yes.

Q: Can having a glass of wine during your meal prevent food poisoning? A: Yes.