Fear not: Health risks you don’t need to worry about

The Pediatric Insider

© 2011 Roy Benaroch, MD

Melissa sent me a great topic suggestion: “Dr. Roy- would you consider doing a post on worry vs. living your life? What I mean is, we live in a world with SO much information and warnings etc. that it is hard to simply enjoy life. Ever since having my son 5 months ago, I’ve been hyper-aware of all of the ‘warnings’ that exist. Sometimes I become so bogged down in worrying about germs, water quality (the list goes on and on) that I waste time researching when I should really be down on the floor playing with him. Just thought it would be nice to get your perspective in creating a nice balance.”

I love this topic, and I think it would be a great subject for my next book. If I ever get around to writing it, Melissa gets a free copy!

Dispelling health worries has become a favorite topic of The Pediatric Insider blog. Health scares are a rich source of material– there’s always some new firestorm that needs a good bucket of ice water. It seems to me that the main goal of American media is to create and cultivate worry and fear. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the ill-effects of this fear itself—the worry, the heartache, the handwringing paralysis caused by the near-constant deluge of bad news—has been far more harmful than the cumulative effect of all of unsafe exposures.

We are living in the healthiest, safest era of human existence. Never have we had more food, or safer food; never have our lives been longer or healthier. Never have our children been safer or healthier. We have far more free time than ever before. So much free time, it seems, that one of our favorite hobbies has become imagining sources of worry for each other.

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. – Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I blame our addiction to new anxieties on two fundamental forces. One is our own evolved brain. We developed during a time when fears were real, and anxiety saved lives. Food was always in short supply—for most of human history, people spent most of their time hunting, cultivating, storing, and protecting their food (ref: Little House on the Prairie, L. I. Wilder.) Most children did not live to adulthood. Food and water supplies were a common source of death and disease; ordinary mosquitoes killed millions by spreading malaria and other diseases; illness from malnutrition was normal. Ordinary injuries frequently resulted in death from untreatable infections. Polio paralyzed, pertussis and diphtheria made it impossible to breathe. What’s known as ordinary strep throat nowadays was once deadly scarlet fever. Fearfulness was normal, and useful, and helped keep your family safe. Our brains are wired to rely on distrust and anxiety to protect ourselves—but that wiring, in today’s developed world, is causing far more harm than good.

(Note: I’m talking here about life in The United States and the rest of the developed world. There are plenty of places where food scarcity, disease, and crushing poverty are rampant. Be thankful you don’t live there.)

There’s another odious, seemingly inescapable force that’s turning us into worry-warts. The 24-hours news cycle has to be fed, and demands a constant flow of new, eye-catching stories. Every freakish problem is blared into our ears and eyeballs, and every concern is exaggerated into a killer crisis. The worst of all is the local news, with their ridiculous, out of context teasers—“Death in the school lunchroom, what you need to know now!”, or “The Killer On the Playground!” There’s no time for context, and certainly no time for careful, reasoned journalism or follow-up. The media wants your clicks and your eyeballs and your TIVO. They seem to have no interest in genuine teaching or giving you useful information to stay healthy.

Back to Melissa’s opening question: how to you sift through a relentless barrage of scary health news from the media and internet without driving yourself insane with worry? First, keep in mind that the sky is not falling. It is not all bad news; in fact, our children are genuinely healthy and thriving in today’s world. Recognize that the most attention goes to the loudmouths, troublemakers, and malcontents rather than those of us who are calmly trying to raise our families and live our lives. Don’t put too much stock on any “new” science information until it’s been verified independently, by genuine scientists and doctors in the field rather than fly-by-night websites that are selling things and pushing an agenda. Realize that fearfulness itself carries a price, and that you and your child will be healthier (and happier) playing together instead of worrying together.

I’ll be revisiting this topic with more examples in the months to come. For now, relax and enjoy a list of topics I’ve already covered. Call it “The Pediatric Insider’s list of stuff not to worry about”:

Imaginary fears about vaccines

Cell phones


Caramel Coloring

Soy protein

Recalled fever medicines

Non Organic food


Early puberty in girls

Minor bonks on the head

Explore posts in the same categories: In the news

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