#AskDok: My baby got sick after meeting relatives—is USOG real?

·7 min read

What’s the meaning of the Pinoy phrase, “Pwera usog?” Read about it here.

What can you read in this article?

  • Is usog real?

  • What’s the meaning of pwera usog?

  • The dangers of putting saliva on baby’s skin

We Filipinos are big on superstition. There’s probably a belief or a myth surrounding every aspect of our lives – from weddings, pregnancy and even raising children.

One very popular superstitious belief that is related to children is “usog.” It’s also one that sparks a debate between new parents and older, extremely unwavering in-laws or relatives.

To find out the truth behind this myth, we asked Dr. Jennifer Tinglao, a pediatrician from the Makati Medical Center to explain the science or at least shed some light on this superstitious belief.

Pwera usog meaning

In Philippine culture, some Filipinos believe that a person can accidentally cause an illness o discomfort when greeting a stranger.

And how were they able to afflict pain? Believe it or not, it’s just through greeting and looking at that person, perhaps like some sort of unintentional hex or curse. Some call this belief, “usog,” while some say, “Nabati siya,” or someone with usog greeted that person feeling a sudden pain or discomfort.

Babies and small children are believed to be most vulnerable to usog.

pwera usog meaning
pwera usog meaning

Image from Unsplash

I saw this happening several times at home. We had a helper who would always put a dab of her saliva on my children’s foot and say, “Pwera usog” whenever she would come from outside.

The superstitious members of the family would later on say that that person has “usog,” almost like she somehow possesses an evil eye or curse when she’s tired or not feeling well. They believe that she can transfer the “negative energy” to someone else.

So she puts a dab of saliva on that person’s skin or say “Pwera usog” meaning “Go away, curse,” in Spanish, as a way to counter the hex.

The science behind the myth

We see this practice happening when we have older relatives visit a new baby in the family. When the baby starts crying nonstop and gets fussy, they would insist that someone there unintentionally transferred the negative energy onto the baby.

But is there really any science behind it, or it’s just really a myth?

Wala talagang usog na word pero kapag nasa probinsya ka, iyan ang maririnig mo. So iyong usog, natatakot ka na magkasakit ‘yong baby kapag may stranger na lumapit. Pero sa totoo lang nakakatakot talaga ang strangers, kasi hindi mo kilala,” said Dr. Tinglao.

“And another reason, seriously is baka may dalang sakit iyong tao na iyon at mahawa iyong anak mo. Hindi natin kilala so baka mamaya may sakit, may flu o carrier ng measles, tigdas o bulutong edi nahawa si baby,” she added.

But if it’s not usog, what could be the cause of baby’s fussiness? Here are a few of our guesses:

  • Colic

Colic is described as prolonged, intense crying of infants for no specific reason, although it can also be because his digestive system isn’t fully developed yet.

Colic usually peaks when the infant around 6 weeks old and gradually declines within the 4th month.

  • Gas

Kabag or gas also commonly occurs in infants, especially at night time. It’s because their digestive system isn’t fully developed yet, which makes it hard for them to digest their milk, or get rid of the air bubbles in their stomach. This makes them extra fussy.

  • Viral infection

Like Dr. Tinglao mentioned, virus may be passed on from the guest to the infant. Your baby might start feeling under the weather right away especially since her immune system hasn’t fully developed yet.

  • Anxiety

Just like us grownups when we’re meeting someone new, babies can feel anxious too. Stranger anxiety happens when the baby feels distressed and uncomfortable with a new face around. Some babies would stiffen, or cry and cling to their parent until the stranger leaves or they start to feel comfortable around them.

When grandparents or relatives insist on carrying the baby on their visit, the child might exhibit separation anxiety, where the baby feels distressed when left alone or separated from his parents or caregiver.

There’s usually nothing to worry about when the baby shows stranger or separation anxiety, as these are considered development milestones, and shows that baby is learning to interact with his environment.


The dangers of dabbing saliva on baby’s skin

Another common practice relate to this belief is the person who is carrying the curse or usog puts a dab of her saliva on the baby’s skin (usually on his tummy or heels) while saying “Pwera usog.”

As parents, we usually decline when we see elders doing this to our children. But some persuasive ones insist, because “Wala namang mawawala,” meaning there’s no harm if you do it. And sometimes, even to our surprise, the baby stops crying or feels better when they do this.

So, how did that happen? Is it witchcraft?

No. Actually, it’s science.

According to a study, one substance found in saliva, opiorphin, is actually a natural painkiller that is 6 times stronger than the drug morphine, but without the nasty psychological side effects.

So, it’s really possible that one would feel relief when a dab of saliva reaches the skin.

pwera usog meaning
pwera usog meaning

Image from Unsplash

However, according to Dr. Tinglao, the cons far outweigh the pro when it comes to dabbing saliva on an infant’s body part.

“Maraming sakit ang nanggaling sa laway. That’s why you call it direct contact dahil maraming sakit na nakukuha dito tulad ng halik.

Maraming bacteria ang laway, may good at bacteria naman, pero mas marami ang bad bacteria na kapag immunocompromised ang bata, hindi pa kumpleto ang bakuna, wala pang antibodies, ay maaring agad na mahawa,” she explained.

When someone sick or with a virus dabs her saliva on any of your baby’s body part and leaves contaminated droplets, your baby might acquire the virus as well and get an infection.

What to do with a fussy baby?

So instead of going down that route, here are some things you can try to calm baby down when she starts crying in the presence of guests:

  • Carry baby. A change in position or a change in scenery might help her feel more at ease.

  • Excuse yourselves from your guests and go to a quiet place. The baby might feel irritated because of all the noise and excitement.

  • Try putting her down and give her a gentle massage. Try the “I love you massage,” on her tummy or do baby bicycles on her legs.

  • Breastfeeding usually helps soothe a fussy baby. Sucking also releases sleep hormones that will help the baby relax.

  • Ask your guests if they can contain their excitement and approach baby in a calm, soft tone, or offer a familiar toy to help her feel comfortable. Don’t insist on carrying the infant if she does not want to be separated from her parent.

pwera usog meaning
pwera usog meaning

Image from Freepik

Reminder to parents expecting guests: tell your guests to manage their expectations especially if this is the first time they will be meeting your baby. If your child is not in a playful mood and you don’t think you can handle the stress of having visitors and a fussy baby at the same time, it would be best to delay or reschedule the visit.

While it’s always our decision as parents if we want to practice these superstitious beliefs, we should always practice caution, especially when it involves our child’s health.

A final message from Dr. Tinglao:

“Sa akin, hindi masama ang pamahiin as long as it doesn’t harm the baby. It doesn’t stop the development of the baby or it doesn’t hinder the health of the baby. Ibig sabihin, kung nakakatulong sa paglaki niya at nakakatulong sa pangangalaga sa baby, okay lang na makinig.

Pero kung sa tingin niyo lalo lang siyang magkakasakit, lalo lang siyang hindi tatalino, I think you should always listen to your doctor, to your pediatrician kasi we are here to guide you.”


Mayoclinic, Healthline

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