Viral health messages: separating fact from myth

viral health messagesThese days, “going viral” is usually interpreted as a good thing. Viral, in regards to the internet, can be good when the information, (Tweet, Facebook post, forwarded email, etc.) solves a crime, shows an unusual marriage proposal or entertains with a cute pet trick. When health is involved however, viral “facts” can turn out to be actually myths or rumours – and they can be dangerous.

When deciding whether or not to use online health advice, it’s crucial to know your sources and verify with proper (knowledgeable and unbiased) authorities. To further that goal, let’s debunk some viral health myths! Here are some popular examples of viral health advice you should not follow – along with the real truth of the matter:

Microwaved food is bad for you

Any method of cooking (heating) food will reduce its nutritional value, however a viral message referring to research from 2003 that allegedly proved 97% of nutrients are killed in microwaved broccoli has done the rounds ever since. However this research has been debunked extensively, as have similar scare stories about melting plastics and radiation leaks.

Viral myth: Microwaving is not dangerous or poisonous in general.

The truth: You must take certain precautions when microwaving food:

microwave food bad health
  • Make sure food is cooked through to the proper temperature. Microwaving can cook food unevenly, risking food poisoning. Stirring microwaved food or liquid is recommended to prevent ‘hot spots’ and ensure even cooking.
  • Use only microwave safe containers for heating/cooking food in the microwave to avoid eating melted plastic (or unhealthy plastic emissions like BPA) with your food.
  • When heating water in the micro, put a chopstick, wooden spoon or popsicle stick in for safety–or use a scratched cup. These are physics-proven methods to prevent rare, but dangerous, superheating. When you first begin to remove the cup from the microwave oven, go slowly and stand back – the liquid won’t appear to be boiling. If you use a bowl or cup with a smooth, unscratched surface, or heat liquid for too long, it can become dangerously superheated. Superheated liquid is beyond the boiling point, but looks like it hasn’t yet boiled. It can “instantly” boil when disturbed by inserting a spoon if you haven’t taken precautions. The water can splash on your skin and steam can burn.
  • Microwave radiation is not a problem for human health if the oven is working properly. See the US FDA for more microwave safety detail and for tips for safe microwave use.
  • Do not microwave anything metal!

Cough CPR: how to stop a heart attack when on your own

Forwarded email text in 1999, and repeated (with pictures!) in social media more recently:

Without help the person whose heart stops beating properly and who begins to feel Faint, has only about 10 seconds left before losing consciousness. However, these victims can help themselves by coughing repeatedly and very vigorously. A deep breath should be taken before each cough, and the cough must be deep and prolonged, as when producing sputum from deep inside the chest. A breath and a cough must be repeated about every two seconds without let up until help arrives, or until the heart is felt to be beating normally again. Deep breaths get oxygen into the lungs and coughing movements squeeze the heart and keep the blood circulating.

The squeezing pressure on the heart also helps it regain normal rhythm. In this way, heart attack victims can get to a phone and, between breaths, call for help.

Urban Legends: Can ‘Cough CPR’ Save Your Life During a Heart Attack?

Viral myth: This very old rumour says that coughs with (deep breaths between) can act as self-CPR in a heart attack.

The truth: Like many great stories of fiction this one has a modicum of truth to it, but is only effective in specific circumstances and under strict medical supervision. The best thing to do in case of a heart attack is to immediately call 999 if you notice these heart attack symptoms.

Broken energy saving bulbs risk mercury contamination

broken energy saving lightbulbViral myth: A widely circulated, but fake, warning from the “British Ministry of Health” described the dangers of cleanup and disposal of broken energy-efficient CFL (or compact florescent) light bulbs.

The truth: CFL bulbs do contain mercury and caution is required when dealing with a broken bulb because of this – and because you might cut yourself. However, the risk is exaggerated – and the message is fake. An official warning was never issued from the “British Ministry of Health” which ceased to exist decades ago. The BBC offers tips to avoid minimal risks.

onions absorb bacteria

Onions absorb virus molecules and bacteria

Viral myth: This flu remedy rumour instructed people to leave cut onions around the house to catch and absorb bacteria to prevent illness. Despite being false it has been circulated widely in social media recently.

The truth: This flu remedy rumour, as covered in the Wall Street Journal in 2009, may have originally sprung from an old tale about a doctor’s notes during the flu epidemic of 1918. The doctor was rumoured to have said that cut onions were placed in every room of a farmhouse where no one fell ill during the raging epidemic. He was said to have examined one onion under a microscope and found flu virus on it. As WSJ noted, biologists confirm that viruses cannot jump out of a body and across a room to collect in an onion. Onions can be good for you if eaten, however, and inhibit some bacterial growth in the body.

man celebrating viral story about semen being good for women with depressionSemen is good for your health, relieving depression in women

Viral myth: Once a 2002 study published as “Does Semen Have Antidepressant Properties?” morphed to indirectly suggest that oral sex would make women happier this one was bound to run and run. At least 50% of people (the men) would hope to find some truth in this story, and could point to the fact that it even appeared in the Daily Mail and The Sun, as if they needed another reason to eagerly share it with friends … and of course their significant others.

The truth: Sorry guys, wishing won’t make it true, as Psychology Today notes. The original study conducted at State University of New York considered how vaginal absorption of semen decreased depressive symptoms in women (no condom used during intercourse), compared to those that used condoms or abstained from sex. The study was considered small and largely inconclusive, and definitely did not involve ingesting semen! However the story got repeated so often the NHS had to publish a rebuff emphasising the “study is full of holes and extreme caution should be used when interpreting anything from it”.

Viral information can be healthy – know your source

Like anything else you do online, including visiting websites and believing the content you find there – stay with what you know. Believing unfounded online health rumours can do worse than expose your computer to malware. What to believe?

Trust the NHS, for one. The NHS is succeeding in “going viral” with important health messages. They’re using short video clips to promote valid health messages. Partly in response to healthcare advertising budgets being cut, NHS organisations are increasingly going online and using social media or YouTube to propagate healthcare messages. This allows them to reach a much larger audience, and particularly young people, comparatively inexpensively and over sustained periods of time.

Two NHS videos have each been viewed 2 million times, although helped into “successful virality” by media coverage: Hot Drinks Harm and Condom, No Condom are examples. These short, bite-sized bits of information have attracted clicks and readily caught on.

How can I separate health story fact from fiction online?

Before hitting the ‘Forward’ or ‘Share’ button take a moment to Google the story and check out its authenticity. If a bogus viral health message is very popular, the NHS and other government or charity organisations will sometimes examine claims in these viral health messages and publish responses, often discounting the stories, and you can find this information quite easily.

Sharing misinformation is not going to help your friends or raise your profile!

Heed these tips:

  • Look for a well known source, but not just a web address that sounds like it might be a trustworthy source, as in the defunct “British Ministry of Health” mentioned above. If the story is an earth shattering revelation from an obscure source like one should be skeptical …
  • Categorise your well known sources – and only believe the credible ones: Believe the NHS and other legitimate government organisations for example. Red top on the other hand, is well known, but for sensationalism. Take any advice with a grain of salt, or take it as entertainment – unless you can verify with a trusted medical source. When you want the truth, look for .edu, .gov,, and some plain .org websites, preferably within the medical or health disciplines. (Not all .org sites are non-profit and not all non-profits are unbiased.)
  • Make sure your well known, credible source is properly spelled. Believe NHS but not H-N-S. We’ve all seen websites that misspell major media sources by one letter to get mistaken web traffic. Keep it in mind when reading viral health rumours.
  • Discount any prediction said to happen by a certain date. Even from a government source, we often can’t believe predictions. Absolutes and 100% claims are especially dubious.
  • Discount sudden miracle cures for complex problems, because if it sounds to good to be true – it’s likely not true. In fact, if it seems sudden and out of nowhere, the information is suspect. For instance, if there was a cure for obesity or hair loss, wouldn’t you have heard something leading up to it – and from multiple credible sources?
  • Discount biased or small-sample surveys presented as fact. The information is often skewed, self-serving and/or collected specifically to create an attention-grabbing headline. Even respected, professionally conducted polls are inherently statements of opinion, prediction or supposition on the part of the individuals polled.
  • Be very wary of chain letters. If the story finishes with a prompt such as “A Cardiologist has stated that if each person, after receiving this e-mail, sends it to 10 people, probably one life could be saved! I have already shared this information. What about you? Do forward this message. It may save lives!” then think twice before doing just that. The more urgent the plea to share, the more suspect the message.

Who starts hoax messages? The question is answered to a degree here and it is probably also correct to add that some are used to increase the profile of a particular website or social media account (which in turn will link to a website) and others to distribute malware.

In summary – don’t buy into dubious and unsupported viral health stories, and don’t distribute false and possibly dangerous advice. The old adage “don’t believe everything you read in the papers” applies tenfold to the internet.

Further reading