Leana Wen, M.D.

Leana Wen M.D.

The Doctor Is Listening

5 Medical Truths Your Doctor Wants You to Know

What you think you know might not be right.

Posted Nov 21, 2012

Today's healthcare consumer is constantly barraged with conflicting information. Does wine prevent or predispose to me cancer? Should I eat certain foods or avoid them? Is this new medication going to hurt or help me? Many issues are still controversial, but there are some things that are backed by a lot of evidence.

Below are the 5 things that doctors want patients to know:

1) Antibiotics will not help the common cold. Colds are caused by viruses, and antibiotics kill bacteria, which is a different type of organism. Some patients will swear that taking antibiotics will help them, but we know scientifically that this is not true. Much better than taking a pill that doesn't work is to strengthen your immune system and prevent the cold in the first place. Get adequate sleep. Eat a healthy diet. If you do get a cold, drinking lots of fluids and taking over-the-counter pain relievers—not antibiotics—are key to your recovery.

2) A CT scan will not help a headache. While there are potentially serious causes of headache, the vast majority of them are due to tension headache or migraine. These will go away with time. Again, pain medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help, as can rest in a quiet, dark room and lots of fluids. A CT scan will only show what you don’t have, and — in the vast majority of cases — will not lead to a diagnosis or make you feel better.

3) Every test has potential side effects. Patients often ask their doctors for tests to figure out what's wrong; in the same way, some doctors rely on tests to save them in making a diagnosis. Again, tests can only tell you what you don’t have. Studies have shown that actually sitting down with the patient and talking to her will much more likely yield the diagnosis than any test. And every test has potential side effects. CT scans emit radiation, and studies have shown that each individual scan increases your lifetime risk of getting cancer. Some CTs and MRIs involve administering contrast dye that could cause kidney damage. Even a simple blood draw can lead to complications like infection and bruising. This is not to say that you should never get tests done; it's just a reminder that tests are not always the answer, and that you should make sure you know ahead of time what the risks and benefits are of every test.

4) Lifestyle changes make a huge difference. Study after study shows that the single most important contributor to decreasing your risk of heart disease, for example, is your lifestyle. You can take pills to decrease your blood pressure, lower your cholesterol, and control your diabetes — but even better is to eat a healthy diet with low saturated fat and exercise. Similarly, the single biggest risk to health that is preventable is smoking. Within even a few months of stopping smoking, the risk of cancers and heart disease begins to decrease. While working on your lifestyle requires far more investment in your time and energy (and willpower) than popping a pill, t's the most effective way to make a difference in your health.

5) Aspirin is one of few medications that's been definitively shown to help you. While prescription drugs are often touted as the best thing out there to prevent heart attack and stroke, aspirin is actually one of very few medications that's proven. It reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke, and some studies are demonstrating that it may even prevent cancer. People who experience chest pain are advised to take aspirin first, because it is the one medication that helps prevent a heart attack. Not everyone needs to take aspirin, and there are some for whom it may be harmful. (All medications, just like all tests, have side effects.), but it’s important to remember that the newest and greatest isn't always the best.

Have truths or myths that you'd like to share, or that you'd like me to look into? I'd love to hear from you.

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