The first time one Italian friend picked me up on his motorino, he almost refused to let me get on. “You’re not wearing a scarf,” he said, looking at me with concern.
I frowned. Of course I wasn’t; the September weather was practically balmy. And then it registered. “Oh, the colpo d’aria? I’ll survive,” I said. After four years in Italy, I’d learned that there was one thing many Italians feared above all others: literally, the “hit of wind.” It was said to cause a mysterious condition called cervicale, a kind of neck pain. My Italian friends swore they’d all experienced it; I was equally sure that, scarfless though I often was, I had not.
Protecting yourself against the colpo d’aria is just one way you’re meant to watch your health in Italy. But if locals are to be believed, there are many other ways to fall ill, too — including by using air-conditioning, drinking a cappuccino after dinner, or leaving the house with wet hair.
But every cultural idea comes from somewhere, right? I decided to talk to some doctors to figure out if some of the most oft-repeated tidbits I heard in Italy had any medical basis.
1) There is something called the colpo d’aria, and it can give you something called cervicale.
I loved teasing my friends for this one while I was living abroad. Turns out, they might not have been totally wrong — just paranoid. Getting a “hit of air” can’t make you sick in terms of giving you an infection or a cold, said Dr. Steven Lamm, an internist and the medical director of the Tisch Center for Men’s Health at the NYU Langone Medical Center. But being suddenly chilled — whether by a cold breeze or from suddenly entering air-conditioning (more on that later) — does make the body work harder to maintain its 98.6-degree temperature. “The body is being forced to make some adjustments. That process could result in some muscular cramping, or muscular spasms,” Lamm said. “The physiological reaction could, theoretically, cause a little bit of shock to the body, which could cause a cervical spasm.” But, he pointed out, it is something we deal with all the time — like when we step out of a hot shower in the morning. It does explain, though, why …
2) You should never leave your house with a wet head.
Ever. I’m a morning-shower person, so when I’m feeling lazy, which is often, I’ll run out the door when my hair is still damp — especially if I’m just going, say, to the grocery store. But in Italy, I quickly learned that the extra ten minutes I’d spend blow-drying, I’d save on conversations: Every time I went out with a slightly damp ponytail, someone would comment on how I’d get sick. Even if it was 75 degrees out. (It doesn’t help that the wet-rat look ruins la bella figura.)
Doctors said that the idea probably stemmed from the same as the above: It’s not smart to go outside with wet hair if it’s freezing out, not because you’ll catch a cold that way, but because you’re stressing out your body slightly. Other than that, you’re probably fine.
3) Having a cappuccino after dinner inhibits digestion.
One culinary rule adhered to across most of Italy is that you should follow dinner with an espresso — never a cappuccino. A cappuccino, instead, is exclusively drunk before noon, usually at breakfast. Reasons I was given for this varied, but more than a few people mentioned how dairy, consumed after a meal, would inhibit your digestion and make you feel discomfort.
Inhibit digestion? Not so, said physicians. But make you feel uncomfortable? Maybe.
They all noted, however, that the dairy itself could certainly make people feel uncomfortable. It’s estimated that some 80 percent of adults lack the enzyme that metabolizes milk and dairy. “If someone has a big meal and then has whole milk, whether it’s in a cappuccino, which has a decent amount of milk, or a glass of milk, chances are they’re going to have some gas,” said Dr. James Marion, a gastroenterologist at Mount Sinai Hospital. Even so, it wouldn’t inhibit digestion. “Nobody is going to get malnourished or develop signs of maldigestion from having a cappuccino after dinner,” Marion said firmly. But they might notice they don’t sleep as well, whether because of the caffeine, the milk, or the sugar, he said, or because of feeling bloated.
No word on why a post-dinner tiramisu or panna cotta doesn’t come with the same caveats.
4) Sparkling water helps digestion.
It’s little wonder that a culture this tied to food is also so concerned about digestion. Still, I was surprised to see bottles of sparkling water in Italy proclaiming that they helped digestion (as Acqua Lete writes on its site, its natural sparkling water “helps digestion and reduces the bloating that you get after a meal”). Many Italians seem to agree: It’s such a widespread idea that La Repubblica chose it as one of the top-ten beliefs about water to debunk. Turns out, debunking is the key word. “The carbon dioxide added to sparkling water has no digestive properties,” the story said.
Marion agreed. But, he pointed out, sparkling water still could help make you feel slightly less full: The gas makes you want to burp, and burping relieves pressure. When it comes to digestion, though, you’re better off not having eaten that heavy meal to begin with.
5) A digestivo, like an amaro, grappa, or limoncello, really does help you digest.
Still no — but it can make you feel less full, for the same reason as sparkling water. “If you drink digestifs like grappa or limoncello, that’s going to relax the lower esophageal sphincter, between the stomach and the esophagus. By doing that, it’s going to allow you to belch,” Marion said. “It could make a little more room, because people swallow air when they eat; if you release some of that air, you’ll feel bloated.” So if you ate too much, it could help you feel slightly better. An added bonus, compared to the sparkling water: It’ll give you a slight buzz that might make you forget that you ate too much, too.
6) It’s dangerous to go in the water within three hours of eating, especially for kids.
In the U.S., I’ve heard that you should wait for a half-hour. But three, the minimum of time usually given in Italy by mothers, grandmothers, and the occasional overly concerned friend? That seemed like a really, really long time.
Physicians agreed. In fact, they said, even the half-hour rule is bunk. “Medically speaking, there’s no reason for this whatsoever,” said Dr. Dyan Hes, medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics. “Let’s say you eat junk food and have a really oily, fatty meal. Even if you get a stomach cramp, you’d stop swimming. It wouldn’t make you drown.” Some swimmers, she pointed out, even eat an energy bar right before swimming, helped by the boost of glucose. Still, she and other doctors pointed out, there are a couple of other reasons why this might have become a rule. The lack of lifeguards on many beaches in Italy means that parents are on duty to watch their kids — and when even a beach lunch in Italy can be a long process involving multiple coolers of lasagna, not to mention wine, no parent wants to be distracted by having to keep an eagle eye on a swimming child.
7) Putting urine on a sting, especially from a jellyfish, helps it heal.
Each summer, thousands of Italians flock to the beaches and islands. And each summer, hundreds get stung by meduse — jellyfish. One summer, I was one of them, and stuck on a boat, no less. In lieu of antiseptic, my Italian friends knew just what to do: pee on my arm!
I won’t tell you what happened next, but I will tell you this is a belief common enough to have been taken up by several Italian publications— all trying to debunk it once and for all. Still, physicians say, there could be some benefit, at least if you’re stuck without any other method. Urine is sterile, they pointed out, and has been shown to have some antiseptic properties. Still, it’s a last resort. “I would put an antibiotic ointment on there first. I wouldn’t just go peeing on your cut,” said Dr. Joshua Zeichner, director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. “But if you don’t have access to traditional, first-aid ointments, this is another option that can help.”
Still, if you’re in a pinch, said Dr. Doris Day, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at the NYU Langone Medical Center, other home remedies include honey, aloe, or simply cleaning with soap and water.
8) Air-conditioning makes you sick.
I’ve had friends whose Italian partners won’t allow them to run the air-conditioning at night, swearing they wake up from it sick. They might be right. “We know that there are medical conditions associated with air-conditioners,” said Lamm. “They’re primarily the result of the fact that air-conditioners require water to be recirculated, and the water can promote the growth of mold and infections.” For that reason, in some buildings with central air-conditioning, people get sick more often. Allergic reactions often present a few hours later, with symptoms like shortness of breath and wheezing — so make sure that filters are clean, he said, and yes: When possible, use fresh air instead.
On the other hand, he noted, the very young and very old don’t tolerate heat well, so in that case, it’s worth running the (risk of) the air-conditioning.