As a pediatric allergist, I meet families from all types of backgrounds who share concerns about common childhood conditions such as asthma, environmental allergies, food allergies and eczema. These topics generate quite a few questions from primary care colleagues and other specialists. One of the best parts of my job is explaining complicated matters of the immune system to people with various levels of medical knowledge.
After just a few years in practice, I recognized common questions and areas of misconception from both parents and medical providers. With my understanding of the evidence and research surrounding allergic conditions, I was initially dumbfounded at some of this incorrect information and was amazed at how often the same myths kept coming up repeatedly.
In 2013, I joined social media as a medical professional with the purpose of circulating evidence based information. This gave me even more insight into the pervasiveness of common myths. I learned that it was not just the folks in my own backyard holding onto false beliefs, but apparently, “fake news” was bombarding the whole world!
My online and personal interactions have taught me so much about communication, the importance of evidence-based information and the way in which people search for things. We all use common search engines to look for information online and the majority of people search online for health related information as well.
After repeatedly hearing the same myths and misconceptions, I did something that changed my approach forever. I started searching online from the perspective of a patient. In addition to using PubMed to look for peer-reviewed publications and research surrounding a topic, I entered the same topic in Google. You will not be shocked to learn that the results were drastically different.
Online searches for common allergic conditions returned sites filled with pseudoscience, promises of false cures and miracle treatments and a host of people deliberately peddling misinformation to profit from their products or services. I now have a deep appreciation for the deluge of inaccurate content that anyone faces when searching online for medical information. There are many reputable sites, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell those apart from the imposters.
My favorite allergy myths are:
- I have a ‘hypoallergenic’ cat or dog. These magical creatures don’t exist. All cats and dogs release dander, which causes allergy symptoms.
- My allergy test says I’m deathly allergic to ____. Allergy tests can only be used to indicate the likelihood of an allergy being present, not the severity of future reactions.
- People with shellfish allergy cannot receive contrast media. This is completely made up and there is zero reason to ask or avoid.
- Eating local honey can treat pollen allergies. I love honey as much as the next person, but it will not treat allergy symptoms. The pollen bees collect comes from different plants than what causes seasonal allergy symptoms. In addition, if someone with allergies ate what they were allergic towards, they would have an allergic reaction, not feel better.
- I want to be tested for hidden food allergies. Food allergy tests are not screening tests. They should only be used when there is a history of immediate onset and reproducible reactions after eating a food. The best ‘test’ is what happens with ingestion. If you are eating a food without problems, you are not allergic.
I use my understanding to address myths during patient encounters, through my social media channels and to educate and inform medical providers as well. We could all benefit from thinking like our patients and be open to discussing misinformation found online. This has led us to develop a new conference at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, to be held on June 14, 2019. This conference is targeted towards any medical professionals, administrators or anyone who wishes to better understand how to improve our communication of health information through social media.
I have put a lot of work into better understanding some of these pitfalls and look forward to helping others learn as well. To register for Communicating Medicine: Harnessing the Power of Social Media in Medicine, click here.