Are You Immune to Medical Myths?

Alumnus Doug Paauw, M.D., has a quest: eradicating medical misconceptions.

What’s even more contagious than colds and flu? The medical myths that surround them. Doug Paauw, M.D., MACP, Res. ’88, Chief Res. ’89, minces no words when it comes to debunking these common misconceptions about cold-weather maladies.

  • Can you get the flu from the flu vaccine? “No. That is absolute nonsense. During flu season, we tend to congregate indoors, and it’s easier to spread viruses, so someone may have a cold or a viral thing that feels like the flu. There may also be a placebo effect when you get the shot.”
  • Does vitamin C help cure a cold? “No. People feel very strongly about this one, but I’m unaware of any controlled trial that shows that it works.”
  • Should you feed a cold and starve a fever? “No. When people need to eat, they should eat. Good nutrition is important when you’re sick.”
  • Should you avoid the flu vaccine if you have egg allergies? “Anybody with an egg allergy can get any form of flu vaccine. But if a patient has a history of egg allergies, many physicians won’t even mention the flu shot — and this is an oversight on their part.”

Medical myths, particularly physician-driven ones, have long been an interest for Paauw, a UW professor of general internal medicine and the Rathmann Family Foundation Endowed Chair in Patient-Centered Clinical Education.

“A myth is something widely accepted as the right thing to do, but it’s either not the right thing to do, or it’s one of many right things you could do,” he says. “To dispel them, I want to get what we already know — what’s in the medical literature and has been out there for a while — into the mainstream.”

What are the risks for patients who believe in medical myths? Some myths may cause an unnecessary cost or inconvenience. For instance, the idea that expired medications don’t work; Paauw says most pills are good for up to five years after their expiration date (though you should always check with your doctor). But more dangerous myths could result in outdated patient care or serious illness.

“If people don’t get the flu shot, some of them will probably get sick, even die, because of that,” says Paauw. “And if we don’t immunize everyone, then more flu can occur in the population. That’s the worst-case scenario for a medical myth: It’s widespread and misunderstood, and a lot of people can get hurt.”

He notes that there are several reasons that medical myths persist among doctors, sometimes for decades.

“We learn things in medical school, and we hold on to them tightly, but we may not be keeping up with the changes in medical knowledge,” Paauw says. “Some myths seem to make sense from a scientific standpoint, even though they’re not true. And sometimes there’s just misinformation out there.”

His regular Myth of the Month column aims to help by providing updated information for physicians.

The director of medical student programs at UW Medicine, Paauw is also well-positioned to educate trainees in challenging myths. He runs internal medicine’s third-year student clerkship and serves as a career advisor for medical students going into primary care and general medicine.

As stubborn as medical myths can be — particularly during cold and flu season — Paauw says they can eventually be defeated with education and persistence.

“It’s really heartwarming to retire a myth,” he says. “When everybody knows the right answer, it feels good that we’ve finally gotten there.”

Watch Watch Paauw dispel more medical myths.


With a gift to the General Internal Medicine Research Fund.