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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Myths your mom told you, debunked

The Northwest has had its share of odd myths and wisdom dispensed from well-meaning parents. While some are based in reality, other, more questionable pieces of advice were passed along to kids, such as the dangers of swallowing gum or seeds.

And then there is the mystical denizen of the Northwest: bigfoot. Washington state sees the highest reports of the hairy humanoid creature, with 701 reported sightings as of October, according to geographic data from the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization.

Bigfoot’s legend started around colonial times when English accounts described seeing a “wild man of the woods.” In 1818, a New Hampshire newspaper reported seeing an animal that looked like this “wild man” who spent its solitary life hidden in the woods, according to an article in the Skeptical Inquirer.

More sightings followed, and in 1924 some prospectors in Washington state heard something throwing rocks at their windows they attributed to a hairy human-like animal.

Trying to prove a creature does not exist is hard.

Debunking the more-pedestrian myths and old wives’ tales, such as catching a cold, is a bit easier.

As children, many, if not most, of us were often told by our mothers that we shouldn’t leave the house with wet hair. But Anita Skariah, a physician at UNC Healthcare, told Bustle Magazine little scientific evidence backs this theory.

Viruses transfer mostly through air particles, such as when a stranger sneezes on you in a public setting, Skariah told Bustle. Being cold or damp does not make a body a virus incubator. Being around other people is the main reason people get sick when they go out. The main dangers of wet hair are related to getting hypothermia and becoming more susceptible to infections, according to Bustle.

But some home remedies have basis in fact, so moms get a point there.

Chicken noodle soup has more purpose than just comfort when you’re sick in bed. While the soup may conjure a psychological benefit, the protein and collagen in chicken broth can also nourish and strengthen the body’s immune system, according to a 2012 study in the American Journal of Therapeutics.

Although chicken soup enjoys a good reputation, other food myths aren’t as pleasant. Kids may have been warned not to swallow watermelon seeds unless they wanted the vine to grow in their stomachs, or that swallowed gum will stick in your intestines for at least seven years.

Neither one is true, but have enough basis in fact that explains their persistence in history. The watermelon myth has elusive origins, but it likely started with some folklore. The legend goes that young Prince An Tiem lived in Vietnam and was loved until the king thought he posed a threat to his authority. Tiem was sent to a remote island where he discovered and then grew tons of watermelons, which has a vine that grows easily and does not take a lot of tending.

Fast forward to 2009, when doctors found a 2-centimeter-tall fir spruce growing in the lung of a 28-year-old Russian man who had been hospitalized for chest pain, according to a report from The Guardian. Then in 2010 the BBC reported on a half-inch-size pea plant sprout in the lung of Ron Sveden, who went to the hospital after his emphysema worsened. Sveden told the BBC he was just glad it wasn’t cancer.

Chewing gum was manufactured after Maine businessman John Bacon Curtis in the late 1800s noticed loggers would chew on the resin of trees, according to a report from the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

He manufactured a treat that would never get smaller no matter how much you chomped. That’s where a lot of the confusion likely comes in; with what we knew about the digestive tract at the time, it seemed possible for a supposedly indigestible food item to stick in your intestine.

“Folklore would suggest that if you swallow gum, it stays in the stomach a really long time – up to seven years,” Dr. Mark V. Larson, a Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist, told the clinic’s Mayo Minute report. “That simply is not true.”

Gum won’t break down in the intestines but it will pass through fully intact. For kids, the main hazard is choking on a piece of gum or swallowing too much of it at once.

Other tidbits our caretakers shared have basis in superstition or religious tradition. “If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back,” likely started as an 18th or 19th century nursery rhyme, according to the University of Southern California Digital Folklore Archives.

The original rhyme was warning parents about their kids getting involved in “black magic,” so the original phrase was, “If you step on a crack, your mother will turn black.”

It’s probably obvious why the original fell out of popular use.

Maybe some luck would help with avoiding those dangerous sidewalk cracks.

Many kids in the U.S. wish upon and then snap the wishbone of their Thanksgiving turkeys, which likely dates back to a tradition in the Italian civilization Etruria the Romans later adopted and spread, according to a report in Reader’s Digest.

The wishbone, usually from a fowl, represented life and pleasure. When they broke the wishbone it apparently affirmed their wish. Some etymologists think this actually originated the phrase “get a lucky break.”