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Go ahead, eat and swim; summertime myths debunked

Commonly repeated advice on staving off mosquitoes, preventing sunburns can leave you burned this season

Posted: Sunday, July 15, 2007

Your mother was wrong — you probably won't drown if you don't wait half an hour to go swimming after you eat. And though many people think garlic repels mosquitoes, it actually attracts a common species, as do many other things.

Along with suitcases and coolers, many people on vacation this summer are probably toting around myths and folk wisdom that just doesn't add up, experts said.

"There are a lot of things that just get handed down from generation to generation and a lot of them really aren't based upon any medical science," said Dr. Melissa Conrad Stppler, chief medical editor of the eMedicineHealth division of WebMD. "They're just told and retold."

Such as the no-eat-then-swim rule. That's one Stppler was asked to look into because so many of the staff had heard it and she included it in a recent online column busting some summer myths.

"It really has never been documented that swimming on a full stomach can lead to drowning," she said. In general, digesting food can divert some blood flow from muscles but probably not enough to be incapacitating, Stppler said.

"I'm not advocating eating and then jumping in the water," she said. "All I'm saying is there's no evidence that you will drown."

Some people are under the impression that, given time, a sunburn will turn into a tan. Or that getting a good base of color, such as from a tanning bed, will provide protection later on while sunbathing.

"One burn will not do you any good," Dr. Stppler said. "It's not good for you. It doesn't help you acclimate to the sun in the future, it doesn't protect you against any kind of future sun damage. It's just a burn that contributes to the cumulative damage of your skin."

Many people think that eating garlic will provide a natural mosquito repellent, said Elmer Gray, an entomologist with the University of Georgia.

"That's a commonly repeated story but I'm not aware of any good science to back it up," he said.

And the opposite is true for one species, said Jerry Butler, professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Florida.

"We've tested garlic and found that Culex mosquitoes are attracted by it," he said, and other species could be also.

Others hope for winged mosquito intervention from bats or purple martins by putting up houses for them, Mr. Gray said.

"And I wish it was true but it's really not," he said. "They will eat some mosquitoes but they're eating every flying insect that they can come across and mosquitoes are a small percentage of their diet. So unfortunately there's never been any studies that show that purple martins or bats will significantly reduce the mosquito population."

One commonly expressed belief is true — mosquitoes do zero in on some people more than others, Dr. Butler said.

"About 1 in 10 people are highly attractive and about 1 in 10 is highly repellent," he said. Some people have high levels of cholesterol on the skin that mosquitoes prefer. People add to their attractiveness in a number of ways — heavy work outside can produce more carbon dioxide and lactic acid that draws in the winged tormentors. Cosmetics and perfumes contain some oils they like. Alcohol, and some of its byproducts such as acetone, also beckon them. Often the mosquitoes will be attracted to a group and then select from there, Dr. Butler said.

"They pick and choose, taking the best choice available to them," he said.

So a good defense?

"Make sure you're with attractive people," Dr. Butler said, laughing.

At least, more attractive than you. And that's no myth.



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