Top 9 Medical Myths

Dr. Keith Hopcroft of The Times has put together his list top 9 medical myths. Can having sex cause a heart attack? Are headaches a sign of brain tumors? Is breast self-exam actually useless? Can the flu shot give you the flu? Put your medical knowledge to the test. Check out the myths, inside…

9. Having sex can cause a heart attack in men.
Mostly untrue. Per hour, the chances of a 50 year old, non-smoking male suffering a heart attack is about 1 in a million. During sex this increases to 2 in a million which is still negligible.

8. High blood pressure causes headaches.
Very untrue except for in extreme rare cases. High blood pressure usually has no superficial symptoms at all.

7. Diabetics crave sugar.
Mostly untrue. Some diabetics require sugar if their glucose is too low but craving sugar by itself does not equal diabetes.

6. Women need to self-examine their breasts.
Very untrue. Research shows that self-exam has no effect in terms of breast cancer outcomes because it isn’t sensitive enough to detect important lumps. In fact it can cause harm by subjecting examiners to increased anxiety. The same holds true for testicular self-exam in males.

5. Diet cuts cholesterol.
Mostly untrue. In clinical trials, diet alone could only cut cholesterol by 10%. Doctors rarely suggest diet changes alone if your cholesterol really needs lowering.

4. Headaches alone can be a sign of a brain tumor.
Totally untrue. Actual tumors produce other symptoms like personality change, fits, or shaking.

3. You shouldn’t mix antibiotics and alcohol.
Totally untrue with the exception of the antibiotic metronidazole. Most interactions between alcohol and antibiotics are so small that they’re irrelevant.

2. Your tiredness may be caused by anemia.
Mostly untrue. Tiredness by itself is common and usually caused by lifestyle issues. Many times people with tiredness have blood tests that reveal anemia but it was probably not the actual cause of the tiredness.

1. Flu shots give you the flu.
Totally untrue. The vaccine does not contain live virus so it cannot cause the flu. However, many people will contract the cold or the flu around the time of their flu shot and link it to their flu shot.

The top medical myths [The Times]
(Photo: Getty)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Gann says:

    #9 is a bit tricky. So basically, having sex doubles your probability of having a heart attack. If you apply this to the entire population of “50 year old, non-smoking male”, it raises the chances from 1 to 2 in a million. If you apply this to an individual with an already high chance of heart failure, lets say around 30%, the same logic bumps his chances to 60%.

  2. searonson says:

    omg I love doctor cat

  3. jaydez says:

    Can we add: Poison ivy is contagious:

    Untrue, you can only get it from contact with the oils of the plant. The bumps and blister fluid from someone with an allergic reaction is not contagious.

    I’m tired of everyone in the office treating me like I have the plague because I got some poison ivy last weekend.

  4. Pinget says:

    Re: #6 Britain’s NHS has gone one step further and said the vast majority of mammograms are unnecessary and cause more harm than good through unnecessary worry. On the NHS schedule, women aged 50-70 get a mammogram every 3 years. Women aged 25-49 get a Pap every 3 years, women aged 50-65 every 5 years. Contrast this with American GYN’s wanting to do a Pap annually! My GYN told me at my last checkup that she wanted me to have a mammogram soon – I’m 37! (with zero family history of breast cancer)

  5. SexCpotatoes says:

    Woohoo! Take that you stupid antibiotics!

    Even though all the literature says, “DO NOT take with alcohol” that means I can still get falling down drunk even if I’m on antibiotics. Thanks guys!

  6. backbroken says:

    “Women need to self-examine their breasts.”

    That’s definitely a myth. I’ll do it for you.

  7. facted says:

    @Pinget: I believe the guidelines from the American College of Gynecology actually call for annual pap smears for all women under age of 30 (since this is the age for the highest likelihood of cervical cancer). If you are negative for 3 paps in a row, it is recommended you only get a pap every 2-3 years. Annual pelvic exams are still in the guidelines, however.

    As for the mammograms,actual recommendations are for women aged 40-49 to have one every 1-2 years, and yearly after 50. If you have any risk factors, you may want to push that up, and if you have cases of breast CA in your family, you’d want to get your first mammogram 10 years prior to the age at which your relative got breast cancer themselves.

    It sounds to me like you need a new gynecologist who actually follows ACOG recommendations.

  8. facted says:

    I’m not quite sure how #2 is a myth. Anemia does cause fatigue in some people, and the “myth” is that anemia MAY cause tiredeness. If it does cause tiredness in ANYONE, then it’s not a myth…

  9. gamin says:

    #6 it’s an eye oppener I always heard doctors telling women to check themself for umps. Hey i even pass as doctor to give free breast exams :P

  10. ConsumptionJunkie says:

    10. Cancer is caused by “vapors” that enter the body during surgery.

  11. apotheosis says:


    Can we add: Poison ivy is contagious:

    Untrue, you can only get it from contact with the oils of the plant. The bumps and blister fluid from someone with an allergic reaction is not contagious.

    I’m tired of everyone in the office treating me like I have the plague because I got some poison ivy last weekend.

    Look, if humans didn’t have an instinctive urge to get away from the guy covered in pus-weeping sores, we’d have gone extinct in the dark ages.

    Don’t take it so personally.

  12. Lance Uppercut says:


    I was in that situation last year. No matter how many times I explained it people were convinced I was contagious and that scratching spread it.

  13. MaliBoo Radley says:

    6. Women need to self-examine their breasts.

    I sort of disagree with this one. I think that the men in womens lives should be doing the exam. My grandfather discovered my grandmothers breast cancer by, well, they we’re being intimate. I’ve also heard of many other similar situations

    I think the men in our lives are far more familiar with our breasts that we are.

  14. chrisjames says:

    #8 I would have to say is just wrong. I guess there’s the caveat of saying “usually,” but I’ve known and heard stories of people with high blood pressure that have symptoms. One story was particularly bad: My mother worked in a cubicle next to man with extremely high blood pressure. He’d get swollen and his head itched like crazy from time to time. It got very bad one day and he was taken to the hospital and the diagnosis was that the blood pressure caused it. Maybe the diagnosis was wrong, but I’ve heard of other people with similar symptoms. Maybe #8 just means slightly elevated.

    #1 is also weird. The spray vaccine is supposedly a type of live flu, though not the bad strain. The regular vaccine is “dead” virus, no? Either way, it’s not the same as the flu, but the symptoms are the same. In fact the symptoms are the same as most common viral infections: flu-like symptoms. So you won’t get the flu, but you’ll get flu virus (dead or wimpy) and you’ll feel like you have the flu. I wish they’d just be honest about what exactly it is, even though it’s beneficial. Disinformation always hurts.

  15. rmz says:

    Depending on how you want to spin it, though, #1 could be worded as “sex doubles your risk of having a heart attack.”

  16. rmz says:

    @rmz: Er, #9. Dang backwards numbering.

  17. juiceboxonfire says:

    #3 might not kill you or send you to the hospital, but it’ll definitely make you feel sick. I got the worst hangovers when I was on antibiotics.

  18. WickedKoala says:

    #6 Uh yeah, tell that to my mom that was self-examining herself and found a lump that turned out to be cancer.

  19. STrRedWolf says:

    Obvious OT comment: Doktor Kitteh is in.

  20. JBob330 says:

    #1 isn’t exactly a myth anymore. A new intra-nasal live virus flu vaccine is available and can give you the flu, or others around you who are immunocompromised.

    Of course, the traditional shot vaccine is still not a live virus.

  21. 6809er says:

    I have to disagree with #4. For the longest time, my only symptom was a daily migraine. By the time my tumor was found, I only had one other symptom (but it was a doozy) – partial blindness. There was never a personality change, fits, or shaking.

  22. Benny Gesserit says:

    @STrRedWolf: It’s too bad the article’s author wasn’t Dr Katz!

    @chrisjames: re #1, I agree “the flu” and “flu-like symptoms” sounds like a cop-out. I know, I know, the ‘dead’ virus is supposed to trigger the immune response. I have too few hair left to split.

  23. parvax says:

    @ConsumptionJunkie: Thank you for making my day with that.

  24. strangeffect says:

    Another way of saying “mostly untrue” is “sometimes true”. Ie, not a myth.

  25. strangeffect says:

    @rmz: Indeed.

  26. DeepFriar says:

    Is the NYT aware the Dr. Keith is a cat?

  27. DeepFriar says:

    #2 – I call bullshit. My father lost 15 pounds and couldn’t get off the couch without being winded becuase of anemia.

  28. lizk says:

    #6: Tell that to my 27-year-old friend whose life was quite possibly saved by a self-exam. I think the low-ish risk of discovering a cancerous lump far outweighs the possible “anxiety” one feels when they find something unusual.

    #1: The nose spray “flu shot” does contain live virus.

  29. hollywood2590 says:

    I’m only two in and this is already idiotic.

  30. ridbaxter says:

    I really disagree with #6. My mom found a lump in her breast during her monthly self-exam and reported it to her doctor, whom she had just visited for her annual exam a few months before. The lump turned out to be malignant. If she had followed Hopcroft’s advice, she would have given cancer a 10 month head start.

    Hopcroft states “research shows X”, however, research is based on limited numbers of participants. It does not equal “everyone,” and thus a blanket statement such as “very untrue” should not be used for this situation.

  31. jsboehm79 says:

    I don’t know who this doctor is, but if we were to judge by his answers to #6 and #4 then I don’t know anyone who would want him as their physician.

    Re: #6, we all know at least one woman who found her cancer as a result of a self exam. But the more troubling statement in there is the one about testicular self exams. I know someone who had testicular cancer. And if you read online what the symptoms are then it will become very clear that a self exam, or self detection, is pretty much the only way it will be found. I certainly haven’t heard of a test guys should take every year or so to see if they have it.

    As for #4, my aunt had severe headaches early last year. Her doctors insisted it was migraines and put her on painkillers. Six months later, when she lost hearing in one ear did they bother to do a scan and there they found a huge tumor right behind her nose.

    Given the comments by others relating similar experiences, I have to say that keeping this article posted without any mention in the article that this guy is a dumb@$$ is a bit irresponsible.

  32. celticgina says:

    No real Medical Background here, but I want to know if Tax Cat and Medical Cat play golf together??

  33. banmojo says:

    so, uh, some of these are misleading actually. Antibiotics that are eliminated by the p450 system in the liver WILL have lower levels than your MD intended if you are a heavy drinker (this turns up the p450 processing plant which in turn processes the Abx faster therefore lower levels). And brain tumors CAN present at first with a progressive headache, so that’s bullshit. And diet CAN have a ‘significant’ impact on some patients’ cholesterol and triglyceride levels, so that’s bullshit too. A woman who is well trained in how to perform self breast exam CAN (and HAS) find an unusual lump MUCH FASTER than women who wait every 1-2 years to see their primary MD (who may not even do the exam) so THAT’S bullshit, although I do understand the underlying sentiment – they DO have to be trained HOW to perform the exam, and it STILL can miss important lumps, hence the need for mammograms!

    Finally, people with poorly controlled hypertension have ‘significantly’ higher frequency of headaches, this is in the literature, so this is bullshit, and yes, one of the possible signs of anemia is chronic (perhaps progressive even) fatigue, so that too is bullshit.

    My gosh, what a totally useless list of bullshit. I do hope Consumerist withdraws this crap from their site, or at least encourages people to talk with their MDs about this if it is relevant/interesting to them.


  34. highmodulus says:

    While these myths seem to be sort of mythological themselves (fancy way of saying sort of wrong), in the doctor’s defense he is just a cat. He probably spent ten minutes on wikipedia doing research before getting distracted by the mouse filled with catnip.

  35. @banmojo: I’m gonna have to agree with you — these might not be outright lies, but they certainly are misleading bullshit.

    Also, the article says it’s a “myth” that you should finish your full course of antibiotics — woah there, cowboy! While it might not mean they don’t work in some cases, it is still most certainly true that courses should ALWAYS be finished.

    And as to that last one, just because there’s no live virus doesn’t mean it can’t give you the flu. Every single time I’ve had a flu shot, it gave me the flu. It probably did this by cranking up my immune system and thus lowering my body’s ability to resist the live flu virus that was floating around in the real world. But the fact that it didn’t directly inject me with the flu doesn’t change the fact that it CAN, and frequently DOES, cause people to come down with the flu who wouldn’t have otherwise. (I haven’t had the flu in ten years, except for the three times I got the stupid shot.)

    Also, the flu shot is “recommended” for damn near everybody…by the companies that are selling it. By the same logic, everyone “over 65” would be taking an entire pharmacy of pills on a daily basis.

    Yeah, this list SUCKED, and probably gave a lot of people some very bad ideas.

  36. Mary says:

    @queenlizzie: “I think the low-ish risk of discovering a cancerous lump far outweighs the possible “anxiety” one feels when they find something unusual.”

    Agreed. I’d rather have the anxiety of finding something unusual and getting it tested/going to the doctor than the anxiety of knowing that a cancer has been there for months when I could have known.

    I feel the same way about annual GYN exams. Sure, I don’t like them, but I’d rather say I don’t have cancer than say I’ll pass on fifteen minutes of discomfort.

    When it comes to cancer, better safe than sorry.

  37. KD17 says:

    “In clinical trials, diet alone could only cut cholesterol by 10% “

    Thats all,

    Time to add a pound of bacon back into my daily diet.

  38. Consumerist Moderator - ACAMBRAS says:

    Amen! Every time I go for a checkup, my doctor asks me if I do monthly BSEs. She also told me that just as often (if not more often), a woman’s partner is the one that finds something.

    I could understand if that NYT doctor said that mammograms were overdone. But BSEs are free, and they’re not difficult. Why on earth would anyone be recommending that people take *less* charge of their health?

  39. chrisjames says:

    Okay, I can’t find any qualifications for Dr. Keith Hopcroft, except that his proudest moments are his numerous literary achievements: books and editorial positions. He apparently thinks he’s better qualified to give advice because he’s given advice before, not because he knows what he’s talking about (not to say that he doesn’t). Neither The Times nor The Sun has any convenient links on the doctor, so I can’t dig in to see where he learned his stuff.

    Anyone else have something to contribute, because all I’ve found on the internet are pages and pages of people in an uproar about the breast exam comment, and wondering why every doctor they’ve been to says just the opposite for most of these.

  40. lesbiansayswhat says:

    Paging Dr Kitty Spaceman

  41. Brunette Bookworm says:

    @ridbaxter: I agree completely. My mom had the same thing happen. She found a lump during a self-exam. It was a very rapidly growing cancer that wasn’t there when she went to the doctor before. I think women need to make sure they get exams by the doctor and get mammograms but also need to be aware of their own body and note any changes they see. If they find a lump, go to the doctor.

  42. LibraryGeek says:

    It appears that he is a general practitioner. A bit of background:
    >Dr. Keith Hopcroft is a full time General Practitioner at Laindon Health Centre in Essex. He is also course organiser of the Basildon Vocational Training Scheme. Keith enjoys writing and his published works include books for the general public as well as medical texts. Titles include ‘A Bloke’s Diagnose it Yourself Guide to Health’, ‘A Woman’s Diagnose it Yourself Guide to Health’ and ‘Symptom Sorter’. He acts as Editorial Advisor to DOCTOR Newspaper and UPDATE magazine and is Medical Editor to Men’s Health magazine. Keith writes regular columns in the Times and the Sun newspapers and also in DOCTOR magazine and the Journal of Men’s Health and Gender, and has been a regular contributor to Radio Four’s ‘Case Notes’. Somehow Keith also manages to have a social life. He lists tennis, football and ‘being a pseud’ among his interests and has endured 40 years of abject misery as a Portsmouth F.C. supporter.<
    from: []

  43. Munsoned says:

    “Mother Cat” must be very proud to have both a Dr. and an Accountant in the family. I wonder if they have a lawyer sister/brother?

  44. youbastid says:

    #5 is just totally wrong. Yes, doctors will often prescribe medication to go along with a diet to lower cholesterol but that’s because it’s just too easy. I ate garbage, my cholesterol was high, I stopped eating total shit, it went down. I doubt that those kind of habit changes only work for 10% of the population.

    And breast self exams are useless? Who WROTE this?

  45. chrisjames says:

    @youbastid: I read it as cholesterol goes down by 10% by diet alone, not 10% of the sample.

    I can understand the former. Cholesterol is actually produced by the body, and just adjusting your diet isn’t enough to help. His “doctors rarely suggest diet change alone” comment is still suspicious, since my doctor wouldn’t stop harping on it, even though I told him what I really needed was a diet change, some exercise, more sleep, and other changes. I think, in general, he means cutting cholesterol intake alone won’t cut it.

  46. Balisong says:

    #4: I got my first and only migraine a few months ago. I freaked out and ran to the doctor, who immediately sent me to get a head scan to check for tumors.

    #6: Goes against everything every doctor has ever told me. “Oh noes, ladies, you could be stressing yourself out – don’t self-examine for breast cancer!” Bull.

    #5: The ULTIMATE bull. Is this “doctor” a shill for Phizer? Changing your diet is the best way to cut cholesterol.

    Crap, crap, and more crap. Take this post down, Consumerist!

  47. crazylady says:

    @Mary Marsala with Fries: it’s better than nothing. and no, they don’t recommend the flu shot to everyone. they want [pregnant women, people over 50, people with certain conditions, and anyone dealing with those three] usually, anyone else is welcome to but only if they want.

    and for good reason, because people in any one of those groups can’t deal with the flu like a normal healthy not-pregnant young adult. i for one have never gotten the flu from a vaccine, and i’ve gotten one every year..and i don’t want the flu again cause the last time I had it it was just awful and I thought I was dying. :

  48. brettt says:

    Consumerist should know better than to post these. It’s basically a set of 9 FALSE medical statements that contradict themselves.

    9) Sex can cause a heart attack, it’s just not likely.

    8) High blood pressure can cause headaches in extreme cases.

    7) Mostly untrue. OK, this one isn’t so bad.

    6) Really?

    5) Diet can lower cholesterol by 10%. Isn’t it nice to be alive 10% longer?

    4) Depends on where in the brain.

    3) antibiotic metronidazole

    2) mostly untrue

    1) OK, this one is an actual myth. good job.

    So, if you don’t want to cause people to die, maybe call this article “1 medical myth and 8 exaggerations”

    Sorry, I just hate bad medical advice. You have to be responsible about it. I understand exaggerating to make a list. “9 myths” sounds good. But health is serious.

  49. youbastid says:

    @chrisjames: Whoops, I phrased it wrong. My cholesterol was cut by far more than 10%. I understand that genes and what not can contribute, but it’s easier to blame your cholesterol problem on your fat parents than it is to change your entire lifestyle.

  50. chrisjames says:

    @brettt: #3, while he mentions metronidazole, there are yet others that you should be careful about taking with alcohol. He states metronidazole as if it is the sole exception.

  51. lemur says:


    #4: I got my first and only migraine a few months ago. I freaked out and ran to the doctor, who immediately sent me to get a head scan to check for tumors.

    Doctors are known to prescribe unnecessary tests to their clients. One reason is the litigious society we live in. Even if the risk is minuscule it is better (from the perspective of the doctor) to have the client and insurance company pay for an unnecessary test rather than risk a potentially carrier-ending lawsuit. Another reason is that a doctor telling a worried client there is nothing to worry about comes across as uncaring and as a “bad doctor”. (“What? I have a problem and you’re not fixing it!?!!”) That does not encourage repeat business.

  52. Tonguetied says:

    I know that my high blood pressure was definitely a source of headaches for me. Heck I know when I’m overdue for my daily pill by the buildup of pressure in my head…

  53. facted says:

    @Consumerist Moderator – ACAMBRAS: In regards to breast exams, there have been huge clinical trials (tens of thousands of patients) that have demonstrated that there is no increase in either finding breast cancer or improved survival (from breast CA) in women who did vs. did not do breast self exams. Many doctors still recommend BSE because it is easy and free (and to cover their ass legally), but if you want to talk about evidence, it’s against BSE. There is also the downside of BSE that if you find a lump (very often benign), you begin to do sometimes unnecessary tests that may lead to health issues down the road.

  54. Balisong says:

    @lemur: I understand that, but all the same I thought it a decent idea. Maybe just cause my father had a brain tumor (which the doctor didn’t know before he said to get the scan), and it is kinda scary to get a migraine out of nowhere when you don’t even get headaches typically *shrug*

  55. Mary says:

    @facted: If there’s a 0.1% chance that a BSE will find a cancer before another exam would (and if we’re saying mammograms are unnecessary too, then how else would you find it?) then it seems to me to be worth it.

    The only reason I can see is the one you bring up, that the tests involved could create other health issues. But really, if one person found a tumor because of a self exam, then I think that qualifies as something that does more good than harm.

  56. Jesterphun says:


    Your analysis is a little off.

    As quoted (who knows if it’s true), the chances PER HOUR of a 50-year old non-smoker having a heart attack are 1 in 1 million.

    Maybe a “higher-risk” person might have a 1 in several hundred thousand chance of having a heart attack PER HOUR. Doubling that risk is still very low PER HOUR.

    So, if a high risk man had a 1 in 300,000 chance PER HOUR and had sex for 12 hours a day, his risk would increase to 1 in 200,000 chance PER HOUR.

    I’m quite sure that nobody has a 30% chance PER HOUR of having a heart attack. Even the extremely lucky would be dead by tomorrow. (1.9% survival for 12 hours, 0.019% for 24 hours)

  57. bones says:

    Except for #1 and # 3 Dr Hops head is an idiot.

  58. Rode2008 says:

    I think the whole list is a fraud. I think it’s purpose is to prepare us all for the Democrat’s social medicine program – to keep us from going to the doctor when we really should – all to save money for the government bureaucracy that will ensue if Clintoon or B. Hussein Obama gets elected.

  59. chatterboxwriting says:

    @chrisjames: I wondered about that, too. I have very severe hypertension (normal runs about 180/110; my worst reading ever was 262/212) and I do get bad headaches. And anyone who reads this who ever has to take metronidazole – definitely do not drink while taking it. It causes severe antabuse-like reactions. Not to mention the medicine alone smells and tastes disgusting. Ugh, I can’t even think about it without gagging.

  60. chatterboxwriting says:

    @chrisjames:Sorry if this double-posts, but I posted like 10 minutes ago and it didn’t show up. What I had said was that I have severe hypertension – I can control it with meds at times, but then it seems like I reach a plateau where the meds don’t work anymore. When that happens, my BP runs 180/110 on average and was as high as 262/212 at one point (yes, I was hospitalized, for four days, when I was on vacation in Miami. Long story). I DEFINITELY get some wicked headaches when it’s really on the high side.

  61. Spinfusor says:

    The Consumerist shouldn’t be posting unsound medical advice.

    Was this list even read before it was posted?

  62. DoktorGoku says:

    This is… not entirely accurate. I feel that articles like these are actually detrimental to most patients. I’ve had more than a few who come in working under blanket statements like these- and in my experience, it’s never helped them.

  63. Dweezil says:

    5. Diet cuts cholesterol.
    Mostly untrue. In clinical trials, diet alone could only cut cholesterol by 10%. Doctors rarely suggest diet changes alone if your cholesterol really needs lowering.

    Absolute, unequivocal horseshit. Diet can absolutely lower cholesterol. Maybe this is a mistaken thought process with regards to the myth that foods high in cholesterol cause high cholesterol, but this is completely wrong. Dietary changes are the first recommendation made by any cardiologist when someone is having issues with high cholesterol.

  64. hi says:

    I call bs on this entire article. Written by a doctor who of course wants you to go see a doctor frequently. And there are flu vaccines that contain the live virus.. so thats a straight up lie.

    #12. Trusting a doctor is like trusting a drug dealer.

  65. mizmoose says:

    Wow, this is pretty crappy. There’s *no* actual data to back up these claims — one person asked on the actual article, and was told “email us privately for that info.” Why? Shouldn’t it be public? All they had to do is say, “It’s on this webpage” or somesuch.

    And, please. Some of this stuff is outright nonsense. While self-exams may panic some people, many others credit finding a lump themselves with saving their lives. And diabetics with high blood sugar CAN crave sugar (and other foods) because high blood sugar means food isn’t being broken down, so you’re even more hungry. And no I don’t have references for it. But then, I’m not claiming to be a doctor :-).

  66. yeah, I call bullshit on the headache brain tumor thing. Why? My dad showed up to the ER with an extremely bad headache and BOOM, he had cancer. So yeah, do your research.

  67. @Rode2008:

    I get you have that opinion, but try not to sound like so much of an ass when you express it.

    Research public health policy before your knock it, bub. Oh, and you know those jerks who make everything political? You’re that guy (or girl).

  68. gomakemeasandwich says:


    Dude, I never want to hear about your grandparents being intimate ever again. WTF, seriously?