4 medical myths doctors want you to forget

At the end of the day, we all just want the truth about how to live well and stay healthy. But what is the truth? From “old wives’ tales” to simple misunderstandings, let’s set the record straight on these top four health myths I encounter in primary care.

Myth #1: Antibiotics are always the answer.

One of the most common misunderstandings I see every day in the outpatient setting pertains to antibiotics — what they are and when you need them.

Case in point: I recently saw a patient who presented to our clinic with a positive case of the flu. When I shared my recommendation for an antiviral medication, the patient asked, “Is there any way you could prescribe me an antibiotic instead?” 

If given an antibiotic unnecessarily, you could develop side effects or become antibiotic-resistant.

Like this patient, many people mistakenly believe that antibiotics are the best treatment choice for any kind of infection. However, antibiotics are medications used specifically to fight bacterial infections only.

As a physician, it is my duty to determine based on your history and physical exam if you have a bacterial or viral infection. It’s a matter of your safety, too. If given an antibiotic unnecessarily, you could develop side effects or become antibiotic-resistant. Besides, most viral infections will resolve with rest and drinking plenty of fluids.

Related: Why your annual physical is more important than you think

Myth #2: The flu vaccine might give me the flu.

Speaking of that patient with the flu… The most common resistance that patients have to getting the flu vaccine stems from the belief that doing so could actually give them the flu. This is simply not true.

Flu vaccines are made of viruses that are not active. There is potential for the flu vaccine to cause flu-like symptoms for the first 2-3 days, but this is not the flu. Also, there is still potential to contract the flu while your body is still trying to build up immunity, which can take up to two weeks after you get the vaccine. Therefore, if you are exposed to the flu during this two week period, you could potentially get the flu, but not from the actual vaccine itself.

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Myth #3: Antidepressants are only for treating depression.

There are several commonly held misunderstandings about the use of antidepressants. I often hear patients say that they are more anxious than depressed, so why put them on an antidepressant? The reason for this is that the chemicals in your body that control anxiety and depression are very similar. Therefore, the pathway for treatment is similar. Patients with high anxiety often benefit from being placed on an antidepressant.

Another common belief is that if you have tried antidepressants in the past, then they won’t work now.  This is not necessarily the case. Your previous dose may not have been high enough or you may not have been on the medication long enough for it to be effective. You can always talk to your primary care physician about these concerns.

Related: Millennials, don’t overlook your need for primary care

Myth #4: Natural supplements are always safe.

Current wellness trends emphasize the use of natural products, but “natural” doesn’t necessarily equal “healthy” or “safe.” One very important myth to discuss is that there is no harm in taking over-the-counter supplements or herbal medicines without advisement from your provider. 

Current wellness trends emphasize the use of natural products, but “natural” doesn’t necessarily equal “healthy” or “safe.”

Here’s why you should always talk to your doctor first: I once had a patient with prediabetes who wanted to lower his cholesterol level. So, in addition to his current cholesterol lowering medication, he decided to add another over-the-counter medication he had read about online. His next blood work showed a more elevated blood glucose — a side effect of the medication he had started without consulting me first.

It is important to discuss with your doctor all the vitamins, herbal supplementations and over-the-counter medications you are taking that are not prescribed. Some of these can interact with different medications, especially antibiotics, and can affect your current medical conditions differently. Your doctor can help you make the best decisions for your overall health and wellness.

Key takeaway: Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

The easiest way to avoid these misconceptions (and the many others floating around the internet) is to have open communication with your primary care or family medicine physician. Do not be afraid to ask questions about your symptoms, treatment plan and care decisions — your doctor wants to hear them, I promise.

Always be open, honest and willing to learn. After all, it’s your health we’re talking about — education is key!

Find a primary care physician who can help you break through the noise.

About the author

Fredricka Barr, MD
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Fredricka Barr, MD, is a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Austin North Burnet. Book an appointment with Dr. Barr today.

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4 medical myths doctors want you to forget