The Medical Minute: April fools vs. April facts

A magnifying glass looks at two chips that say real and fake.

This time of year, you have to be on your toes.

April 1, 2024Penn State Health News

When the calendar flipped to a new month a couple of days ago, some of your closest friends may have tapped into a time-honored tradition of pranks and goofs that dates back millennia, starting when Neanderthal man cave-painted the first knock-knock joke.

See? We just made that up. You can’t be too careful.

But when it comes to your well-being, no one can afford to be an April fool. In this week’s Medical Minute, Penn State Health experts help clear up what’s an April fool and what’s an April fact.

And the advice they give just might come in handy.

It’s important to take Vitamin C pills when you have a cold.

April fools.

Perhaps the most widely accepted dietary supplement is Vitamin C, which is reputed to ward off colds or to at least expediate recovery when a patient is suffering through head and chest congestion.

Dr. Matthew Silvis, vice chair of clinical operations for Penn State Health, said there’s no empirical proof that Vitamin C has any pre-emptive power; whether it can assist in speeding recuperation is inconclusive.

“There’s a lot of debate about whether or not Vitamin C actually changes how long you are going to have your illness,” Silvis said. “But as with other vitamins, if you have a healthy, well-balanced diet with fruits and vegetables, you’ll meet your dietary needs day to day.”

Although ingesting too much Vitamin C is not nearly as dangerous as an excess of Vitamin A, it could cause gastrointestinal discomforts such as nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, Silvis said.

Dental health has nothing to do with your risk of heart attack.

April fools.

Medical science has discovered that people with dental issues have a significantly higher risk of developing problems with their heart valves and their arteries. A link can be made between infections in the mouth and a hardening of the highway system that carries oxygen-rich blood out to your vital organs.

Hardening in the arteries is when there’s a buildup of fatty substances inside the walls of these blood vessels, which leads to a blockage and ultimately a heart attack.

Incidentally, the material blocking the arteries is referred to as plaque – but it’s a completely different kind of substance than the kind that coats your teeth and causes cavities, said Dr. Andrew Waxler, a cardiologist at Penn State Health Medical Group ― Berks Cardiology. Eating a lot of sugary foods can still lead to heart problems, but not that way. The No. 1 risk factor for heart disease is diabetes, he said.

What causes the connection between tooth decay and arterial blockages isn’t clear, Waxler said. Theories range from bacteria from the mouth lodging in the artery walls to the human anatomy overreacting to inflammation.

Honey helps with a sore throat.

April fact.

Honey is a natural anti-inflammatory, said Dr. Heidi Hutchison, a family practice physician at Penn State Health Medical Group – East Pennsboro. In some countries – Croatia, for example – it’s used as medicine, and not for its sweetness.

“It’s not like ibuprofen,” she said, but it shares some of its properties. Honey is safe for most people 1 year of age and up, and it can do wonders for a sore throat.

After all, most of the time inflammation is what’s causing your throat to hurt, Hutchison said. Infectious bacteria have set up shop in the back of your throat. Your body is reacting to try to remove it ― and it hurts.

Too much time in air devoid of allergens can lead to allergies.

April fact.

According to Dr. Timothy Craig, director of allergy, immunology and respiratory clinical research at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, many variables can cause a person to be predisposed to allergies.

Spending too much time indoors, not being exposed to pets and other animals early in life and not being exposed to enough bacteria and viruses can also increase risk of developing allergies.

The hygiene hypothesis, as it is known ― being too clean and compromising the adequate development of your immune system ― increases susceptibility to allergies because a person has not built up a tolerance to antigens and instead becomes allergic to them, Craig said.

“Predisposition combined with westernized changes in living and diet and overuse of antibiotics is what probably helps determine our chances of acquiring allergies,” he said. Diet, exercise and exposures all help develop the bacteria that colonize someone’s skin, airway and gastrointestinal tract. This colonization is referred to as a microbiome, and certain microbiomes predispose someone to developing allergies.

When exposed to an irritant like tree pollen, a sensitized person’s mast cells ― part of the immune system and located throughout the body ― rapidly release histamine in defense. Histamine is a chemical response to the allergen and is what causes allergy symptoms. Other chemicals released from the mast cells also attract inflammatory cells called eosinophils which over hours to days can worsen symptoms.

There’s no need to have your cholesterol checked until you’re older.

April fools.

“People in their 20s may never consider getting their cholesterol checked, but they should because it may uncover a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol that they didn’t know about,” said Dr. Michael Farbaniec, a cardiologist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. “The sooner it’s treated, the more damage you can prevent.”

In fact, the National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute recommends initial testing between ages of 9 and 11 and every five years after that.

People over age 40 should get a lipid panel annually, and they should ask to have it added to annual blood work if their primary care physician doesn’t order it – since it is easily overlooked with the plethora of other issues being maintained, Farbaniec said.

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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