Fact or fallacy

September, 05/2016 - 09:00

Health tips

Dr. Brian McNaull. — Photo courtesy of Family Medical Practice Hanoi,
Viet Nam News

To Your Health

“Tap water in Việt Nam causes acne”, “pollution is the cause of most health problems”, “street food results in stomach upsets”.

These are some of the scary stories and opinions often heard from Vietnamese and expats alike. Dr. Brian McNaull separates the medical facts from fiction.


Does Vietnamese tap water give you acne?

If the tap water is heavily contaminated with bacteria it could contribute to acne. However, washing with soap will reduce the negative effects of any bacteria in the water.

Do not drink from the tap and brush your teeth with safe water. Drink plenty of boiled or bottled water to stay hydrated. Also, only drink with ice cubes made from boiled or bottled water.

Is drinking cold water bad for your health?

There is no evidence to support this notion, which is prevalent in many parts of the world. In fact, the opposite may be true: warm water encourages the growth of bacteria.

Is the pollution in Việt Nam the main cause of health problems?

Pollution is a contributing factor to diminished health, especially to the lungs, but change of lifestyle is probably much more important.  As in many countries with the advent of labor-saving technologies and more prosperity, people are exercising less, eating more of the wrong kinds of food (too much animal fat and refined sugar). Positive interventions for long-lasting general health are to stop smoking, eat a well- balanced diet (low fat diary, less animal fat, more fish, skinless chicken and vegetables), and regular exercise (at least 30 minutes, four times per week).

Is coughing up “green stuff” due to weather change?

Increased humidity may encourage certain bacteria and viruses to more easily colonize the airways. Green phlegm or sputum usually indicates significant bacterial infection and medical advice should be sought as soon as possible.

Are air purifiers the solution?

Air purifiers do help remove odors and allergens such as hair, animal fur and fungus from the local environment. They are especially helpful to those who suffer from asthma and its related conditions.

Does eating street food result in diarrhea? 

Hanoi’s public health authorities say 90+% of street food contain an unacceptable level of bacteria. That does not mean that everyone will get sick - different factors determine our response to an infectious challenge, such as the amount of bacteria ingested, the amount of acid in our stomach, our own immune health at that time, medicines we might be taking. We all respond differently to mild infectious challenge. Rule of thumb: If the place looks unclean, avoid it.

Should fruit and vegetables be peeled before eating?

We all know small amounts of bacteria in food won’t affect us; our immune systems can fight off minor infections. But this is not the only reason for concern. The term “organic” is under scrutiny in Việt Nam where the use of pesticides and pollutants in the ground is not well controlled. All countries have different standards and enforcement. Việt Nam still needs to progress in both. Vegetables and fruit on supermarket shelves may have some levels of pesticides and pollutants.

Peeling and scrubbing is always recommended to remove some of the pesticide residues that may be present. It may be advisable to also peel conventionally grown cucumbers, eggplant, potatoes and apples, both because their outermost surface may be the most affected by pesticide spraying and because petroleum-based wax coatings may be harmful to one’s health.

The medical impact of continually eating polluted vegetables and fruit cannot accurately be quantified. But there is concern about effects on IQ levels, skin infections and constant colds. In fact, a lot of Vietnamese people are turning to growing their own vegetables so they can be assured about the origin of their produce. —Family Medical Practice


The writer is Medical Director at Family Medical Practice Hanoi, a branch of Family Medical Practice Vietnam. He has experience in emergency medicine and general practice, has served as a leukemia specialist at Sick Kids Toronto and as a liver consultant at Mt. Sinai, Toronto. For more information contact: hanoi@vietnammedicalpractice.com