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From twirling cotton swabs in our ears to starving a fever—habits with little purpose, and some that do harm.

By Robert Shmerling, M.D., Harvard Health Publications

When it comes to health, we all do things that serve little purpose or aren’t really good for us. No, I’m not talking about superstitions (such as saying “bless you” after sneezing) or major health transgressions (such as smoking, overeating or driving too fast). These are topics for another day.

I’m talking about the little, everyday things that probably have few risks or benefits to our overall health. We may have a sense they are useless, or worse, that they could be bad for us. But, we keep doing them anyway.

My favorites

Here are some of my favorite useless or potentially risky activities with little proven benefit that many of us are doing on a daily basis:

Twirling cotton-tipped swabs in the ears. It’s nearly irresistible. The use of swabs to “clean” the ears or to remove water is nearly universal (although I have no hard statistics on this). Perhaps it’s the way cotton swabs are shaped and “the itch” they seem to “scratch” when we insert one into the external ear canal. But read the label. Their manufacturers recommend that they only be used (wink, wink) on the outside of the ear. The fact is, the ear is a self-cleaning organ. Most healthy people require no routine maintenance. Inserting (or, the less favored approach, jamming) a cotton tipped swab into the ear can damage the eardrum or push wax (cerumen) farther into the canal, making it harder to remove. This may cause a feeling of pressure and decreased hearing.

Using expired medications. According to a recent study, most medications last at least a little beyond their expiration dates. But testing for potency and safety is generally lacking, so why take a chance? Check the expiration dates of any medications you use, whether over-the-counter or prescription. Throw out all expired drugs.

Eating carrots to improve vision. Carrots are a good source of vitamin A, a nutrient that’s important for healthy eyes. However, unless you have vitamin A deficiency, eating carrots is unlikely to do anything for your vision. And eating too many carrots can turn your skin orange. Fortunately, the effect is temporary.

Brushing your teeth with enthusiasm. If you’re in a hurry or think brushing more vigorously will get your teeth cleaner and whiter, think again. You may actually damage the teeth and gums. It’s best to use only gentle pressure with a soft brush. And don’t forget to floss.

Increasing exercise too much too soon. While your intentions may be good—and highly commendable—you can cause more harm than good. If you don’t take the time to train, you’re more susceptible to injuries, such as muscle tears or tendon inflammation. You may be so sore that you can’t exercise. Have patience. It takes weeks or months to get out of shape; it’ll take at least that long to get fit. Increase your exercise no more than 10 percent per week (as measured by duration, speed or the weights you’re using).

Starving a fever. There is simply no reason to avoid food if you have a fever as in the adage “feed a cold, starve a fever.” In fact, maintaining good nutrition when you’re sick with a cold or flu can help you recover.

Drinking lots of water. Going out of your way to drink when you aren’t thirsty is probably unhelpful and occasionally harmful. (It’s also expensive if you’re buying bottled water.) There are exceptions, of course, such as exercising outdoors when it’s hot and humid. But for the average person working indoors, drinking when you are thirsty is generally all you need to do.

Eating off the floor. It’s clear that bacteria and toxins can be transferred to food quickly. So, whether you subscribe to the 5-second rule (or, as I like to call it, the 10-second rule), picking up your food off the floor within a few seconds is no guarantee that it’s safe to eat. Sure, the overall risk is probably low, but it’s usually best not to eat food that’s been on the floor. And one more thing: Blowing on your food that’s been on the floor will not make it safer.

Why do we do these things?

I suspect we engage in these behaviors for one or more of the following reasons:

Lack of definitive information. Show me definitive research that looks at the effectiveness or safety of common medications beyond their expiration dates and I’ll promptly throw mine out. Until then, I’ll take my chances!

Intuition. It just seems logical that food that’s been on the floor only briefly should still be OK to eat.

Inertia. I’ve always done it this way and I’ve never had a problem.

An authoritative source. My mother said to do it this way and her mother told her the same.

Low stakes. Maybe carrots won’t help but I like them and they’re pretty safe.

Impatience. I have too little time to gradually increase exercise or brush my teeth as they tell me I should; besides, more (and faster) is better!

The bottom line

If you want to be healthy, there are much bigger priorities than these little things that are worth your attention. But until you’re doing even the little things right, you’re not doing all you can to stay healthy.

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