It happens to everyone: A weird bump shows up on your butt, leg, or any fill-the-blank body part. First thing you do? Start Googling. One hour later, you've emerged from the black hole of medical minutiae circulating the internet convinced that you have a rare form of cancer and only months left to live.
"Prior to internet content, we had to go to the library to check all this stuff out," says Jay Parkinson, founder and CEO of Sherpaa, an online healthcare company that fields thousands of patients' inquiries on a weekly basis. Now we can cut straight to panic without even leaving the house.
We asked Parkinson and Neal Barnard, founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, to reveal the health scares that strike the most irrational fear into the hearts of misinformed people everywhere.
"Eating soy will give me cancer."
This fear has been around for nearly a century, when a group of scientists discovered that soy contains chemical structures that resemble estrogen. They're called isoflavones, and in the minds of worriers everywhere, they became inextricably associated with female sex hormones. "The idea was that if a man consumes it, he will have a low sperm count and be infertile, and if a woman consumes it, she was going to end up with high risk of breast cancer," says Barnard.
Fast forward to today. After a cornucopia of research has been conducted on the topic, doctors now know that that the fears were misguided. In fact, soy probably does a deal of good. Two meta-analyses show strong negative associations between soy consumption—think milk, tofu, and soybeans—and both breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men.
"The flu shot will give me the flu."
Every year, you hear people complaining about their last flu shot. "It gave me the flu," they say. "It doesn't work."
But the vaccine-haters are mistaken. "It is absolutely impossible to get the flu from the vaccine," says Parkinson. That's because the syringe doesn't hold the influenza virus. It holds chopped up pieces—itty-bitty, minute particles that your body recognizes as potential invaders, but are in fact unable to cause real harm.
Now, could you feel like crap immediately after getting the shot? Sure. It's possible that you'll feel a little achy or sore, or maybe even run a quick, low-grade temperature. But this is a vaccine side-effect, and not the flu itself, and it's always super mild compared to the actual flu. Remember: Influenza is far more horrendous than a little one-day discomfort. If you do get the flu after a vaccine, it's just coincidence, says Parkinson. The vaccine itself takes about two weeks to kick in, so if you get sick just days after the shot, chances are you just got pricked after the virus was already in your system.
"My tampon is stuck up there and now I'm going to die."
First, a little Anatomy 101: Your vagina is not some endless black hole that swallows up your tampon. There's a beginning and an end, so if you dig up there and can't find your tampon, it's not there.
Still, women often believe that if something feels off, or if they accidentally left their tampon in for more than the recommended eight hours, they're stuck with toxic shock syndrome, the bacterial infection most closely associated with super-absorbent tampons. But toxic shock syndrome is extremely rare, says Parkinson. It strikes about 1 in 100,000 people, putting your odds at about .001 percent. Plus it takes days to develop, so whatever discomfort you feel from tampon abuse probably isn't related.
That said, here's a required disclaimer to make sure you don't ignore obvious symptoms: If you suddenly feel feverish, have a sunburn-like rash, start vomiting, or have diarrhea, don't be a dummy. See your doctor immediately.
"I can't get it up so I'm stuck with Viagra for the rest of my life."
A limp dick is generally not permanent, says Barnard. More often than not, it's caused by either stress and anxiety, or bad health resulting from a crappy diet, alcohol, and smoking. If you suspect the latter, then your erectile dysfunction could be the result of narrowed arteries impeding the swift blood flow that you need to go from six to midnight. In other words, you have bigger things to worry about than erectile disfunction—like heart failure.
But generally you can fix the problem by changing your lifestyle, says Barnard. Meditate, eat more fruits and vegetables, hit the gym, and stop smoking cigarettes. Do the things you should have been doing all along, and you might avoid the need for the little blue pill.
"My splitting headache is the result of a serious brain tumor."
The bounty of medical information circulating online is creating a phenomenon that Parkinson calls "first-year medical student syndrome." That means every little itch, twinge, or headache translates to self-diagnosis of a serious health condition.
The truth is, headaches are common symptoms of brain tumors. So if that's what you're Googling, that's what you'll find. But more often than not, a headache is just a headache, says Parkinson. Think of it this way: 80 to 90 percent of people suffer from headaches at some point in their lives, but only 12 in 100,000 get brain tumors each year.
A headache can mean lots of things, most of which aren't as serious as brain tumors. If your head doesn't feel better after popping a pain reliever, forget WebMD and give your actual MD a call.
"I don't drink much milk so my bones are likely to break."
It's time to call bullshit on the cow-milk myth. While everyone needs calcium, and the vitamin D to absorb it, no one really needs dairy, Barnard says.
The whole idea that milk gives you strong bones is actually a pretty weak argument. One study of nearly 7,000 adolescent girls showed no link between stress fractures and dairy intake, and two peer-reviewed meta-analyses on older populations show a similar lack of correlation. Dairy is simply not the bone-building heavyweight people assume it is.
That's because milk is but one source of calcium. It's a good one to be sure, but there are others. If you really care about calcium, do as the cow does: Eat grass. Or rather, the human equivalent: "Humans obviously don't need grass, but they can eat their own form of vegetables, like broccoli or spinach to get the calcium they need," Barnard says.
"I'm pretty sure I'm pregnant because my boyfriend ejaculated near my vagina."
Here's the thing with sperm: No man's swimmers have that much super-power strength to crawl into the vagina to fertilize an egg. And anyway, sperm can only survive for a few minutes outside of the human body before they go kaput. "How women get pregnant is such a poorly misunderstood thing," says Parkinson, who is astounded by the amount of questions his team fields regarding pregnancy. It actually requires a pretty direct hit.
Believe it or not, the pull-out method is actually pretty reliable. In couples who do it correctly (i.e. before any semen comes out), just 4 percent of women get pregnant, according to Planned Parenthood. (But that number jumps to 27 percent with typical use—i.e., if the couple gets sloppy, pulling out late or sometimes not at all.) These aren't odds you want to bet on, but don't panic if your situation is little more than a splash of semen along your bikini line. And then get yourself some decent birth control.