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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 November 2005, 13:12 GMT
Mother knows best. Or does she?
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

'We'll try a daily dose of carrots instead'
The conclusion by scientists that wrapping up warm really can deter a cold will have been met with a collective "told you so" from those who have always trusted in old wives' tales.

Folklorists have never enjoyed a sympathetic hearing from those whose knowledge of life is denoted by the letters that follow their name.

That's probably no bad thing, at least for some in the Animal Kingdom, who seem to have been irredeemably detested in days before rational thought prevailed.

Toads suffered the perpetual bad publicity of causing warts, frogs could stave off epilepsy - but only after being dried and worn in a silk bag around the neck - and lizards, when dreamed of, were a sign that one had a secret enemy.

Then there's the belief that pulling out a grey hair would cause 10 more to grow in its place, or the idea that a white moth trying to enter a house means death.

Wrap up warm

Ironically, enlightenment, in the most literal sense of the word, probably helped vindicate this particular old wives' tale - albeit ensuring death to the moth.

Yet as Cardiff Common Cold Centre has proved, old wives' tales cannot be dismissed out of hand, much as one might be tempted to do with superstitions or fairy stories. Staff at the centre, which is part of Cardiff University, took 180 volunteers and asked half of them to keep their bare feet in icy water for 20 minutes.

Twenty-nine percent developed a cold within five days, compared with only 9% in the control group not exposed to a chill. That's one in the eye for the sceptics.

Then take the old wives' tale that cats should be kept away from babies because they "suck the breath" from them - one of several lesser-known ones listed at corsinet.com.

Children watching television
Headaches are more likely than square eyes
Taken literally, it's hogwash. But any new parent with a moggy should know there is a very real risk that cats, who seem to spend their lives searching out warm spots to relax in, risk suffocating small babies by sitting on them.

Likewise, the adage that it's bad luck to let milk boil over comes with a modicum of truth - have you ever tried cleaning burnt milk from the top of a stove?

The belief that carrots help one see in the dark isn't misguided either. The vegetable is good for eyes because it is a good source of vitamin A, which helps prevent night blindness and even has been reported to prevent cataracts.

That old jibe about watching too much TV giving you square eyes... ok, it's an exaggeration. But looking at a screen all day is not good for the health - a survey this year of workers who use screens found two-thirds regularly left work with a bad headache and more than half suffered tired or strained eyes.

While the belief that Vitamin C is handy at warding off colds has been rubbished as homespun quackery, it actually derives from one of the greatest scientists of the 20th Century, double Nobel prize winner, Linus Pauling.

Brain food

Pauling claimed that consuming the equivalent to hundreds of oranges could prevent or even cure a typical cold.

Current thinking says the great man was at least half right. Professor Balz Frei, director of the Linus Pauling Institute, says large doses of Vitamin C do not to stop you catching colds - but they can relieve the symptoms and reduce the cold's duration.

Mothers can now be confident in their advice to children to wrap up well in winter
Professor Ronald Eccles
Common Cold Centre

The same goes for garlic. A study in 2001 found for the first time that a daily garlic supplement containing allicin, a purified component of garlic considered to be the major biologically active agent produced by the plant, reduced the risk of catching a cold by more than half.

Fish too has made the leap from old wives' adage as a "brain food" - to scientific journals. Research in Chicago recently found the Omega 3 fatty oils found in fish help keep the memory area of the brain in good shape.

But sometimes the old wives have shown themselves to be wildly off target. Take the claim that dates back to the 17th Century that coffee can make men impotent. Two years ago, Brazilian scientists appeared not only to disprove this, but actually proved the opposite - caffeine makes sperm swim faster and could improve male fertility.

Some old wives, at least, would blanch at the mere thought of it.


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