Popular Old Wives’ Tales: Fiction or Fact?

Will you a catch a cold with wet hair? Will your potato salad go bad in the heat? Does a drink help a hangover? We've got the answers that debunk (or defend) common old wives' tales.

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1. Don't go outside with wet hair. You'll catch a cold.

1. Don't go outside with wet hair. You'll catch a cold.iStock/Central IT Alliance
False. Getting chilled does not cause a cold—at least not under laboratory conditions. In one study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine, two groups of people were exposed to viruses that cause the common cold. One group was exposed to the germs in a chilly 5°C room; the other group, in a balmy 30°C room. The result? Both groups caught colds at about the same rate. Sorry, old wives.

2. Foods with mayonnaise spoil faster.

2. Foods with mayonnaise spoil faster.iStock/minadezhda
False. Turns out this is an old wives' tale. When you turn your leftover chicken into chicken salad, the mayonnaise actually helps prevent spoilage. Why? Because commercial mayonnaise is somewhat acidic. The upshot: when you're heading out for a picnic or setting out a buffet, you don't have to avoid mayonnaise—just be conscious of keeping the food cold. And if you know that there will be leftovers, cover the dish and get it in the refrigerator as quickly as possible.

3. Feed a cold, starve a fever.

3. Feed a cold, starve a fever.iStock/Sadeugra
Forget the old saying about 'starving a fever' to make it go away. (Actually, the original saying was 'feed a cold, stave a fever,' stave meaning to prevent.) Fasting will weaken you just as you should be preserving your strength. Even if you don't feel like eating, at least have some chicken soup and toast or other soothing foods. The old wives would approve.

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4. Over do it? Have little hair of the dog.

4. Over do it? Have little hair of the dog.iStock/AzmanL
False. The 16th century English dramatist John Heywood suggested that the best way to recover from a hangover was to have the 'hair of the dog that bit you'—meaning, another alcoholic drink. The old wives' tale and the expression is a spin-off from the misguided notion that you could recover from a dog bite by plucking a hair from the dog and holding it to the wound. Unfortunately, the advice doesn't work any better for hangovers than it does for dog bites. Drinking your way out of a hangover will only postpone and prolong your misery.

5. Chicken soup will cure your cold.

5. Chicken soup will cure your cold.iStock/cobraphoto
Maybe not cure, but it will help. It seems that the centuries-old home remedy of the consumption of chicken soup for fighting the common cold is not just an old wives' tale. Scientists believe that a bowl of the soup may reduce inflammation of the lungs. It is thought that chicken soup slows down the activity of white blood cells that can cause the inflammation.

6. Chocolate helps relieve pre-menstrual cramps.

6. Chocolate helps relieve pre-menstrual cramps.iStock/saquizeta
Some truth to this old wives' tale. Claims that the reason women crave chocolate when they have PMS is that they're deficient in magnesium, have been dismissed by scientists. After all, wheatgerm and green leafy vegetables are high in the mineral and few people crave those. However, chocolate does contain mood-boosting chemicals that may explain cravings. Satisfy your desire with dark chocolate, which has less sugar and fat than milk chocolate.

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7. Don't eat spicy food if you are prone to ulcers.

7. Don't eat spicy food if you are prone to ulcers.iStock/chang
False. Doctors used to think spicy foods were no good for people with peptic ulcers. Modern research, however, has shown that this isn't necessarily the case. In fact, there's some evidence to suggest that hot peppers, which contain a chemical called capsaicin, may actually help to heal ulcers by stimulating bloodflow to the wound.

8. Get your hair squeaky clean.

8. Get your hair squeaky clean.iStock/Serg Myshkovsky
False. No squeaks. Forget the old wives' tale about washing your hair until it's squeaky clean. Shampooing your hair until it squeaks strips the hair shafts of necessary oils. Instead, apply shampoo to the roots only and work it gently into the rest of the hair. Lather only once, rinse thoroughly, and apply conditioner—unless the conditioner is already in the shampoo.

9. Put some brandy on your baby's gums.

9. Put some brandy on your baby's gums.iStock/jandrielombard
False. A risky remedy. Forget that old wives' tale about dabbing brandy or whiskey on a baby's gums to alleviate teething pain. Even a very small amount of alcohol can be toxic to a baby.

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10. Never open the door when baking a souffle.

10. Never open the door when baking a souffle.iStock/Leonardo Patrizi
False. Is it an old wives' tale that you should not open the oven door when baking a soufflé? Opening the oven door is unlikely to be a disaster unless your kitchen is very draughty, but you are much more likely to make a successful soufflé if you keep the oven door closed during cooking. The soufflé should increase in volume by at least half and sometimes as much as double and to do this it must cook at the correct temperature. Opening the oven door will cause a sudden drop in temperature.

11. Fish is brain food.

11. Fish is brain food.iStock/Roxiller
True. You may have been told when you were growing up that eating fish improves your brain's capacity - and there is now some proof that this old wives' tale is true. The reason for this is fish oils, which contain omega-3 and omega-6. These essential fatty acids (EFAs) are critical for health, normal growth and the development and function of our brains. In a study carried out by neuroscientist and senior research fellow at Oxford University Dr Alex Richardson and colleague Dr Madeleine Portwood, 120 primary-school children with coordination difficulties who were given a mix of omega-3 and omega-6 EFAs over three months showed significant improvements in school performance. Fish oils have also long been shown to protect against coronary heart disease, as well as Alzheimer's disease and rheumatoid arthritis; they have anti-inflammatory properties which protect blood vessels and are also considered helpful in reducing stiffness and tenderness in joints. 1,801 Home Remedies, Traditional Wisdom Rediscovered, Hint & Tips to Make Life Easier, Your Cookery Questions Answered, Stay Calm Stay Healthy (Reader's Digest Association Books)

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