Stemming the spread of common — and potentially deadly — infections

Germs, bacteria and viruses surround us, but fortunately, the human immune system is typically well equipped to fight many common bugs. For those that we can’t fight on our own, there are effective countermeasures to help us contain or prevent infections that range in intensity from inconvenient to deadly. Yet with all the medications and interventions available, education, awareness and common sense remain the best prescription for staying healthy and avoiding infections.

This month, Wellness Matters focuses on dangerous infections; next month (July), we’ll examine common contagious and infectious diseases.

It’s critical to not underestimate the severity and danger associated with infections. Regardless of how they’re contracted, if left untreated, infections that spread through insect, animal or human bites, cuts, punctures, or the sharing of toothbrushes, razors and other personal items can turn deadly quickly.

Signs and symptoms vary depending on the organism causing the infection, but often include fever and fatigue, or discomfort at the wound site. Mild maladies may respond to rest and home remedies, but some infections are life-threatening, need medical intervention and may require hospitalization.

Here are a few common infections that everyone should be aware of and which require medical attention:

Staph infections are caused by staphylococcus bacteria, types of germs commonly found on the skin or in the nose of even healthy individuals. Most of the time, these bacteria cause no problems or result in relatively minor skin infections.

Skin infections caused by staph bacteria include:

  • The most common type of staph infection is the boil, a pocket of pus that develops in a hair follicle or oil gland. The skin over the infected area usually becomes red and swollen. If a boil breaks open, it will probably drain pus. Boils occur most often under the arms or around the groin or buttocks.
  • This contagious, often painful rash can be caused by staph bacteria. Impetigo usually features large blisters that may ooze fluid and develop a honey-colored crust.
  • This infection of the deeper layers of skin causes skin redness and swelling on the surface of your skin. Sores (ulcers) or areas of oozing discharge may develop, too. Cellulitis occurs most often in the lower legs and feet and can be life threatening if left untreated.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection is caused by a strain of staph bacteria that’s become resistant to the antibiotics commonly used to treat ordinary staph infections.

Most MRSA infections occur in people who’ve been in hospitals or other healthcare settings, such as nursing homes and dialysis centers. When it occurs in these settings, it’s known as health care-associated MRSA (HA-MRSA). HA-MRSA infections typically are associated with invasive procedures or devices, such as surgeries, intravenous tubing or artificial joints.

Another type of MRSA infection has occurred in the wider community — among healthy people. This form, community-associated MRSA (CA-MRSA), often begins as a painful skin boil. It’s spread by skin-to-skin contact. At-risk populations include groups such as high school wrestlers, child care workers and people who live in crowded conditions.

Treating dangerous infections

Antibiotics are the most effective course of treatment for fighting infections. Your doctor may perform tests to identify what type of staph bacteria is behind your infection, and to help choose the antibiotic that will work best. Antibiotics commonly prescribed to treat staph infections include certain cephalosporins, nafcillin or related antibiotics, sulfa drugs or vancomycin.

Vancomycin increasingly is required to treat serious staph infections because so many strains of staph bacteria have become resistant to other traditional medicines. But vancomycin and some other antibiotics have to be given intravenously.

If you’re given an oral antibiotic, be sure to take it as directed, and to finish all of the medication prescribed by your doctor. Ask your doctor what signs and symptoms you should watch for that might indicate your infection is worsening.

These common-sense precautions can help prevent or reduce the likelihood of developing infections such as staph:

  • Wash your hands. Careful hand-washing is our best defense against germs. Wash hands briskly for at least 15 to 30 seconds, then dry them with a disposable towel and use another towel to turn off the faucet. If your hands aren’t visibly dirty, you can use a hand sanitizer containing at least 62 percent alcohol.
  • Clean a wound, puncture or bite, and use an astringent, alcohol or antibiotic cream or pad. Oftentimes, simply washing the affected area with soap and water is enough. Even better, use one of the many available antibacterial creams or wipes for treating the area as soon as possible.
  • Keep wounds covered. Keep cuts and abrasions clean and covered with sterile, dry bandages until they heal. The pus from infected sores often contains staph bacteria, and keeping wounds covered will help keep the bacteria from spreading.
  • Reduce tampon risks. Toxic shock syndrome is caused by staph bacteria. Since tampons left in for long periods can be a breeding ground for staph bacteria, you can reduce your chances of getting toxic shock syndrome by changing your tampon frequently, at least every four to eight hours. Use the lowest absorbency tampon you can, and try to alternate using tampons and sanitary napkins whenever possible.
  • Keep personal items personal. Avoid sharing personal items such as towels, sheets, razors, clothing and athletic equipment. Staph infections can spread on objects, as well as from person to person.
  • Wash clothing and bedding in hot water. Staph bacteria can survive on clothing and bedding that isn’t properly washed. To get bacteria off clothing and sheets, wash them in hot water whenever possible. Also, use bleach on any bleach-safe materials. Drying in the dryer is better than air-drying, but staph bacteria may survive the clothes dryer.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Milking it

Whole milk, low-fat, two percent, silk, goat, almond, lactose free . . . there’s even coconut milk! Confused? If you’re wondering what is what and which is better — or best for you and your family — here’s a quick primer to help you sort out the fat from the soy in your dairy products.

If you’ve ever traipsed through the dairy aisle at your local grocer, you know there’s a wide assortment of milk choices. But the contents and differences can be confusing, and misleading to the uninformed. Some people (including babies) can’t digest whole milk — fortunately, there are many non-dairy “milk” products available to help provide critical proteins and nutrients typically found in milk. But for those of us who can’t imagine an Oreo, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or bowl of cereal without cold milk, here’s some facts that might help narrow your healthy choices.

The primary types of milk sold in stores are whole milk, reduced-fat milk (2%), low-fat milk (1%), and fat-free milk. The percentages included in the names of the milk indicate how much fat is in the milk by weight.

Whole milk is 3.5 percent milk fat and is the closest to the way it comes from the cow before processing. Consumers who want to cut calories and fat have multiple options: Reduced-fat milk contains 2 percent milk fat and low-fat milk contains 1 percent milk fat. Fat-free milk, also called nonfat or skim, contains no more than 0.2 percent milk fat.

All of these milks contain the nine essential nutrients found in whole milk, but less fat. The U.S. government sets minimum standards for fluid milk that is produced and sold. Reduced-fat milks have all of the nutrients of full-fat milk; no water is added to these types of milk.

There are many types of milk – different fat levels, lactose-free, flavored and plain, rBST-free, organic and conventionally produced. This variety allows consumers to choose the milk product that best matches their nutritional needs and personal preferences.  All milk and milk products have an irreplaceable package of nutrients that cannot be found in any other single food or beverage. Cup for cup, organic and regular milk contain the same nine essential nutrients – such as calcium, vitamin D and potassium – that make dairy products an essential part of a healthy diet.

Organic labeling is not a measure of the quality or safety of a product. As with all organic foods, it’s the process that makes milk organic, not the final product. Any differences between organic and conventionally-produced milk are not likely to have an impact on our health. According to the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA), milk and milk products can be labeled “organic” if the milk is from cows that have been exclusively fed organic feed with no mammalian or poultry by-products, have access to pasture throughout the grazing season, are not treated with synthetic hormones and are not given antibiotics. Due to the pasture feeding requirement, organic milk can have more omega-3 fatty acids. However this will vary depending on the season and other factors.

Milk is among the most highly regulated and safest foods available. Both conventionally produced and organic milk are routinely tested for antibiotics and pesticides and must comply with very stringent safety standards, ensuring that both organic milk and conventional milk are pure, safe and nutritious.

What’s most commonly referred to as simply “milk” is cow’s milk, a product of the cow’s mammary gland. As with all other animal-based foods, it’s a complete protein; that is, it supplies people with all the necessary amino acids to form proteins. Cow’s milk contains 8 grams of protein and 12 grams of carbohydrates per 8-ounce cup.

Cow’s milk is a rich source of other nutrients as well. One cup provides adults with about 30 percent of their daily calcium needs and about 50 percent of their vitamin B12 and riboflavin requirements. Often, milk is fortified with vitamin D to facilitate the absorption of calcium. Vitamin A is usually added to milk as well. But as already mentioned, depending on the selection, cow’s milk can have a significant amount of fat. (See chart )

Soy and non-dairy substitutes

Lactose, the primary carbohydrate in cow’s milk, poses a digestive problem for some people. These folks are deficient in the lactase enzyme that’s needed to break down this milk sugar, causing gas, bloating, and diarrhea after consuming some forms of dairy products. The solution is to purchase products with the lactose already broken down, to take the enzyme in the form of a pill or drops, or to find a substitute for these foods.

Soymilk is not technically milk, but a beverage made from soybeans. It is the liquid that remains after soybeans are soaked, finely ground, and then strained. Since it doesn’t contain any lactose, soymilk is suitable for consumers who are lactose-intolerant. It’s also a popular cow’s milk substitute for vegans and vegetarians since it’s based on a plant source (others include rice, oat, almond, coconut, and potato milk).

One cup of unfortified soymilk contains almost 7 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbohydrate, 4½ grams of fat, and no cholesterol. Although soymilk supplies some B vitamins, it’s not a good source of B12, nor does it provide a significant amount of calcium. Since many people substitute soy beverages for cow’s milk, manufacturers offer fortified versions. These varieties may include calcium and vitamins E, B12, and D, among other nutrients. If you do choose to use soymilk instead of cow’s milk, read labels carefully to be sure you’re getting enough of these important nutrients or consider getting them from alternative food sources.

Soymilk may help some people reduce their risk for heart disease. Soy naturally contains isoflavones, plant chemicals that help lower LDL (“bad” cholesterol) if taken as part of a “heart healthy” eating plan. The recommendation is to take in about 25 grams of soy protein per day. One cup of soymilk has about 7 to 10 grams of protein, depending on the brand. If you’re going to buy soy, go for the unflavored, organic soymilk in order to preserve the protein it contains.

Almond milk sales have climbed over the past few years, as it has been touted as a healthier alternative to milk and soymilk. It contains fewer calories than soy (90 calories in 8 ounces), no saturated fat or cholesterol, about 25 percent of our daily vitamin D, and almost half of our vitamin E requirement. Though almond milk has also been recognized for preventing heart disease, researchers don’t believe it has the same nutritional value as conventional milk, and it has very little protein.

Rice milk is processed, milled rice, blended with water until it transforms into a liquid. During the process, carbohydrates become sugar, giving it a natural sweetened taste. This sugary alternative is very low in nutrient value unless vitamins and calcium are added to it. It’s the least likely to trigger allergies, but contains almost no protein and has twice as many carbohydrates.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Welcome to Lyme Disease central

It’s nice to brag about Connecticut’s shoreline, rolling hills, beautiful rivers and scenic vistas. We’re among the leaders in quality of life, have a highly skilled workforce, and a history rich in innovation, invention and discovery. Unfortunately, we’re also the national poster child for Lyme Disease, which — literally and figuratively — has made the nutmeg state its bull’s eye.

Lyme Disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, joint pain and in many, but not all cases, that characteristic “bull’s-eye-like” skin rash called erythema migrans. It’s estimated to affect 300,000 Americans a year and 65,000 in Europe, typically in the spring and early summer.

If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system. Lyme disease is diagnosed based on symptoms, physical findings and the possibility of exposure to infected ticks.  Laboratory testing is helpful but not always conclusive, and Lyme Disease often is misdiagnosed. It is the most commonly reported vector-borne illness (meaning transmitted via organisms such as ticks or mosquitoes) in the United States, even though it does not occur nationwide and is heavily concentrated in the northeast and upper Midwest.

Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics. It is not contagious and cannot be spread from person to person. But there are certain precautions we can take to prevent the spread of the illness, including using insect repellent, removing ticks promptly, applying pesticides, and reducing tick habitat, especially since the ticks that transmit Lyme Disease can occasionally transmit other tick-borne diseases as well.

While it is a good idea to take preventive measures against ticks year-round, we should be extra vigilant in warmer months (April through September) when ticks are most active. And in summer, when we’re out hiking, biking, camping, and spending a lot more time in and around grass and woods, there are several steps we can take to limit bites from ticks, mosquitoes and other disease-bearing insects.

Avoid direct contact with ticks and mosquitoes when possible. If you can, avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter. When hiking, picnicking or walking, try to remain in the center of trails.

Wear long pants and protective clothing, and when you’re done recreating or working outdoors, check your clothing for ticks, since they can migrate once in the car or home.

Use appropriate repellants. We can repel ticks and mosquitoes with DEET or Permethrin. Here are some useful hints for maximizing our use of tick repellant:

  • Use repellents that contain 20 percent or more DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) on the exposed skin for protection that lasts up to several hours. Always follow product instructions. Parents should apply this product to their children, avoiding hands, eyes, and mouth.
  • Use products that contain permethrin on clothing. Treat clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents. It remains protective through several washings. Pre-treated clothing is available and remains protective for up to 70 washings.
  • If you’re using other repellents, go to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website for safety information.

Find and remove ticks from our bodies. Finding and removing ticks embedded in our skin can be gross, but painless. The best bet is to keep them at bay. But if they do find us, here are tips for dealing with them easily and effectively:

  • Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors (preferably within two hours) to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on us.
  • Conduct a full-body tick check using a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of the body upon return from tick-infested areas. Parents should check their children for ticks under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and especially in their hair.
  • Examine gear and pets. Ticks can ride into the home on clothing and pets, then attach to a person later, so carefully examine pets, coats, and day packs. Tumble clothes in a dryer on high heat for an hour to kill remaining ticks.
  • Consult a doctor or a nurse (or check on the Internet) to determine the best method for removing the tick; it’s important to remove the entire tick, or it can leave parts embedded in our skin.

Should you or a family member develop a bull’s-eye-type red rash near the bite site, or exhibit other side effects such as a fever, lethargy or extreme exhaustion, consult a doctor and ask to be tested for Lyme Disease.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Putting national observances to work for your company

Summer’s rapidly approaching, which means the year is half gone. Or, on a more positive note, you still have six months in 2015 to plan some fun, competitive and interesting health and wellness activities for your workforce!

One CBIA Health Connections employer created a health and wellness committee to brainstorm and plan activities. They linked several of their activities to national health- and wellness-related observances. Another tied their activities to local events, charities, and parks. Many employers bring in guest presenters and instructors, or sponsor classes, health screenings, nutritional education, and internal competitions. It’s all good fun, can be used to support charitable programs, and helps build stronger workplace teams.

Every month in the United States, there are a dozen or more “formal” awareness commemorations. These provide great topics around which you, your wellness champion, management team, or staff employees can develop an action plan for one or more activities.

There’s something for everyone, ranging from high-profile cancer awareness months for ovarian, prostrate, breast, lung and skin cancers, to fruit and vegetables “matter” month, obesity, eye and hearing care, diabetes, yoga, UV protection, blood pressure, workplace and helmet safety, immunizations, and much more. You can find the list and related information here.

This month is National Great Outdoors Month – there are a variety of activities planned at Connecticut State parks, perfect locations for picnics and outings. And even though it’s not even summer yet, it’s never too early to begin planning for the autumn and winter – by building a schedule well in advance, you can encourage more employee involvement in planning and implementing activities that ultimately improve teamwork, enhance morale and productivity and support health and wellness.

Healthier employees are happier employees. They get sick less often, suffer from fewer incidences of chronic diseases, and have reduced absenteeism and sick days.

Sounds like a win for everyone. By delegating – and using the many health and wellness tools available online – you can play a major role in promoting, supporting and funding health and wellness activities that feature a huge return on your investment!

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!