If a heart attack doesn’t kill you, advice on your Facebook page could.
An old, discredited email has found new life on social media, advising people who are alone during a heart attack to breathe deeply and cough vigorously as a way to save their lives. This supposedly increases oxygen levels and helps blood circulate.
While the advice is well-intentioned, it is wrong. Dead wrong.
Repeated hard coughing could turn a mild heart attack into a fatal one, said Tracy Stevens, a cardiologist at St. Luke’s Mid American Heart Institute. So-called “cough CPR” is only preferable in a hospital under expert supervision.
Better advice: Immediately call 911 and chew a regular-sized aspirin.
The coughing message is but one example of potentially dangerous medical misinformation spread online and through social media.
The most famous recent source of such bad advice, according to a group of prominent physicians, is Mehmet Oz. His critics recently called on Columbia University to drop the talk show host (who is also a cardiothoracic surgeon) from its medical faculty, slamming him for showing a “disdain for science and evidence-based medicine” and manifesting an “egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.”
Specifically Oz has come under fire for hyping “miracle” weight-loss products that were later discredited, warning viewers about arsenic in certain brands of apple juice, announcing that his own children wouldn’t be vaccinated, and for suggesting the Ebola virus could become airborne.
He makes those claims on his syndicated TV show, and word spreads further through social media.
Oz fired back, characterizing the attacks as an ugly “smear campaign” by “rent-a-scientists” working for big corporations.
Regardless of who is the culprit, the problem is growing. Last year the World Economic Forum asked its 1,500 members to identify the main concerns spanning the globe. At No. 10: the rapid spread of misinformation online, with special emphasis on the role played by social media.
Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, and a former FDA associate commissioner, called such quickly spreading quackery “insidious and dangerous and, in many ways, life-threatening.”
“I’m excited that more people are getting information about their health online, but I’m concerned that some think everything they read (there) is true,” he said in an interview. “There’s a famous quote by Mark Twain: ‘Be careful about reading health books. You might die of a misprint.’ But that was back when medical information traveled at the speed of cattle boats. Now it travels around the world in milliseconds, with absolutely no quality control.”
People want to believe there are simple solutions to complex problems, he said.
“People like good news, and they all just know their doctor is wrong,” he said. “And since nature abhors a vacuum, there’s social media (and other platforms) with well-intentioned people with bad information.”
Experts urge people to search only at trustworthy sites.
“We tell everyone to go to MedlinePlus, which is produced by the National Library of Medicine,” said Linda Walton, president of the Medical Library Association. “The quality and correctness of the information has been reviewed by medical librarians and other experts.”
But checking responsible sites doesn’t always lead to a safe result. An Internet search for “Can coughing during a heart attack save your life when you’re alone?” returns the WebMD article “Coughing May Help During Heart Attack.”
Catherine Daniel, a WebMD spokesperson, noted that the Cough CPR article was datelined 2003 and clearly marked “WebMD News Archive.” She said the site had more up-to-date information that warned against the technique.
The problem, critics say, is that some readers may not go past the headline. And the article does not note that the advice is now discredited, and potentially deadly.
“That’s very misleading,” said Stevens, the St. Luke’s cardiologist.
These messages circulating in email and online contain more misleading and potentially harmful medical information.
Myth: Various cancers can be cured by pureed asparagus. The message has been circulating online for years.
“There’s no human trials that any food cures cancer,” said Jeanne Drisko, professor and director of KU Integrative Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center, who tracks medical misinformation online.
It gets worse. Asparagus can interfere with a drug used to treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Drisko said, so eating asparagus actually could make some cancers worse.
Myth: Cancer can be cured by ingesting small amounts of hydrogen peroxide mixed with water. NaturalNews.com, a health and wellness website with more than 1.4 million likes on Facebook, makes this claim for “35 percent food grade” hydrogen peroxide.
“The ‘lame-stream’ mainstream media will tell you how ‘dangerous’ it is at 35 percent, but they won’t tell you that you can drip a couple drops in a glass of water each day and end cancer,” the site says. “Yes, it’s true.”
No it’s not, Drisko said.
“They are absolutely off base,” she said. “It cannot cure cancer…. And it can be very dangerous. You should never drink hydrogen peroxide. It can burn the stomach if the wrong form is consumed,” and kill in larger quantities. “That’s very bad advice.”
Myth: Ticks can be easily removed with liquid soap and a cotton ball. This well-meaning piece of medical claptrap was supposedly shared by a school nurse:
“Apply a glob of liquid soap to a cotton ball. Cover the tick with the soap-soaked cotton ball and swab it for a few seconds (15-20). The tick will come out on its own, and be stuck to the cotton ball when you lift it away.”
Don’t do it, Drisko said. Such folk remedies – which also include painting the tick with nail polish or petroleum jelly, or using heat from a burned match head – not only don’t work, but can make matters worse by actually triggering salivary fluids from the tick, possibly leading to the transmission of disease-causing microbes.
“Your best bet is to not mess around, but to get that tick removed,” Drisko said. “Preferably in the first 24 hours.”
Experts recommend using tweezers to grasp the tick as close to its head and mouth as possible and pull slowly but firmly. If the head remains after removal, seek medical attention.
The challenge of policing medical misinformation is monumental, said Pitts of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest. “You can’t limit a well-meaning person who wants to share their beliefs.”
That puts the onus on the health consumer. While the Internet has many reputable sites, such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pitts said, the information they provide is not always written in a way consumers can understand.
“In the U.S. our health literacy is very low,” he said. “The way to increase it is not by throwing textbooks at people. What I say is call your doctor, or talk to your pharmacist.”
Even better, he said: Get more doctors on Facebook and Twitter.
“How many physicians are on social media?” he asked. “Not many. They may be on for personal reasons, but we live in the 21st century, and that’s got to change.”