Seeing clearly

There’s a lot we take for granted when it comes to our health, and much we can do to reduce the risk of illness, control aging-related issues and prevent or limit disease. Education, awareness and preventative steps typically are the best prescriptions for us and our families, yet we often fail to take precautionary measures that can prevent common and potentially dangerous health conditions from taking hold.

August is Eye Injury Protection Month, but taking good care of our eyes requires far more than simply wearing safety glasses at work and play. The first rule, naturally, is to wear approved eye protection. That can be safety glasses on a jobsite or while competing in sports, but also when mowing the lawn or using power equipment. There are so many ways to hit ourselves in the eye, or to be injured by thrown objects, splashed liquids, and even wind-blown contaminants or materials. So if you’re doing something that might result in an injury, take the safe and easy step to cover your eyes.

Being aware of the potential damage from ultraviolet light also is important. Sunglasses and clear eyeglasses with protective coatings filter out the sun’s damaging rays, so if you work or spend a lot of time outdoors, you need that extra protection.

Adults should visit with an optometrist or an ophthalmologist at least once every other year, and annually if you have bad eyesight or a family history of glaucoma, cataracts, or other congenital or age-related eye ailments. Many eye maladies develop as we get older, part of the natural aging process. Through a comprehensive eye exam, eye care professionals not only determine sight deficiencies and illnesses, but also find warning signs pointing to other dangers such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer.

Dry eye syndrome and glaucoma are two common ailments that effect people as we age. If the glands in our eyes stop making enough natural lubricants, we can buy over-the-counter remedies, but we should check for inflammation or infection. Sometimes dry eyes occur from living or working in windy, dry, or low-humidity environments, or in buildings with air-blown hot air. Doctors recommend “artificial tears,” which don’t have as many chemicals as the “get the red out” eye drops. Also, anti-inflammation medications and vitamins or foods like fish oil which are high in Omega-3 are often recommended.

Glaucoma is a group of illnesses that can lead to blindness if not treated. When fluid builds up inside the eye, pressure and tension can result in damage to the optic nerve, including blindness. Glaucoma has no early warning signs. However, symptoms can include blurriness or clouded vision, sensitivity to light, headaches, reduced peripheral or “side” vision, or “tunnel vision.” It’s more common in adults over 60, in African American adults over 40, or in adults with diabetes or a family history of glaucoma. It’s most often treated through medications and surgery.

Simple tips for keeping our eyes healthy

There are many things we can do to keep our eyes healthy and make sure we are seeing our best. Here are simple steps for maintaining healthy eyes well into our golden years:

  • Have a comprehensive dilated eye exam. You might think your vision is fine or that your eyes are healthy, but visiting an eye-care professional for a comprehensive dilated eye exam is the only way to really be sure. When it comes to common vision problems, some people don’t realize they could see better with glasses or contact lenses. In addition, many common eye diseases such as glaucoma, diabetic eye disease and age-related macular degeneration often have no warning signs. A dilated eye exam is the only way to detect these diseases in their early stages.
  • Know your family’s eye health history. Talk to family members about their eye health history. It’s important to know if anyone has been diagnosed with a disease or condition, since many are hereditary. This will help to determine if we are at higher risk for developing an eye disease or condition.
  • Eat right to protect your sight. We’ve heard carrots are good for our eyes. But eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, particularly dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, or collard greens is important for keeping our eyes healthy. Research has also shown there are eye health benefits from eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, and halibut.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese increases our risk of developing systemic conditions such as diabetic eye disease or glaucoma which can lead to vision loss. If you are having trouble maintaining a healthy weight, talk to your doctor.
  • Wear protective eyewear. Wear protective eyewear when playing sports or doing activities around the home. Protective eyewear includes safety glasses and goggles, safety shields, and eye guards specially designed to provide the correct protection for a certain activity. Most protective eyewear lenses are made of polycarbonate, which is 10 times stronger than other plastics. Many eye care providers sell protective eyewear, as do some sporting goods stores.
  • Quit smoking or never start. Smoking is as bad for our eyes as it is for the rest of our body. Research has linked smoking to an increased risk of developing age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, and optic nerve damage, all of which can lead to blindness.
  • Wear shades. Sunglasses are a great fashion accessory, but their most important job is to protect our eyes from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. When purchasing sunglasses, look for ones that block out 99 to 100 percent of both UV-A and UV-B radiation.
  • Give our eyes a rest. If we spend a lot of time at the computer or focusing on any one thing, we sometimes forget to blink and our eyes can get fatigued. Try the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look away about 20 feet in front of you for 20 seconds. This can help reduce eyestrain.
  • Clean our hands and contact lenses properly. To avoid the risk of infection, always wash hands thoroughly before putting in or taking out contact lenses. Make sure to disinfect contact lenses as instructed and replace them as appropriate.

# # #

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!

Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the sneeziest of them all?

Sneezy, Sleepy, and Grumpy may have been three of the seven dwarves of Disney fame, but Itchy, Runny, and Miserable could be their springtime cousins. The flowering trees in New England are a colorful and welcome break from the bleak winter landscape. However breathtaking, though, they can take our breath away… literally. For all its beauty, this is a difficult time of year for millions of Americans, and the severity of allergy season can vary according to where you live, the weather, indoor contaminants and many other elements.

Seasonal allergic rhinitis is usually caused by mold spores in the air or by trees, grasses, and weeds releasing their pollens. Outdoor molds are very common, especially after a spring thaw. They are found in soil, some mulches, fallen leaves, and rotting wood. Everybody is exposed to mold and pollen, but only some people develop allergies. In these people, the immune system, which protects us from invaders like viruses and bacteria, reacts to a normally harmless substance called an allergen (allergy-causing compound). Specialized immune cells called mast cells and basophils then release chemicals like histamine that lead to the symptoms of allergy: sneezing, coughing, a runny or clogged nose, postnasal drip, and itchy eyes and throat.

Asthma and allergic diseases, such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever), food allergy, and atopic dermatitis (eczema), are common for all age groups in the United States. For example, asthma affects more than 17 million adults and more than 7 million children. It’s estimated that one-fifth of all Americans are allergic to something, whether seasonal, airborne or food related. Nasal allergy triggers can be found both indoors and outdoors, and can be year-round or seasonal. It’s important to be aware of the times of day, seasons, places, and situations where your nasal allergy symptoms begin or worsen. If you can identify your triggers, and create a plan for avoiding them when possible, you may be able to minimize symptoms. Here are a few points to remember:

  • You may be reacting to more than one type of allergen. For example, having nasal allergies to both trees and grass can make your symptoms worse during the spring and summer, when both of these pollens are high.
  • Molds grow in dark, wet places and can disperse spores into the air if you rake or disturb the area where they’ve settled.
  • People with indoor nasal allergies can be bothered by outdoor nasal allergies as well. You may need ongoing treatment to help relieve indoor nasal allergy symptoms.

If avoidance doesn’t work, allergies can often be controlled with medications. The first choice is an antihistamine, which counters the effects of histamine. Steroid nasal sprays can reduce mucus secretion and nasal swelling. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that the combination of antihistamines and nasal steroids is very effective in those with moderate or severe symptoms of allergic rhinitis. However, always consult with your physician before taking even over-the-counter medicines for allergies, as they may conflict with other medications or aggravate symptoms of other illnesses or chronic conditions.

Another potential solution is cromolyn sodium, a nasal spray that inhibits the release of chemicals like histamine from mast cells. But you must start taking it several days before an allergic reaction begins, which is not always practical, and its use can be habit forming. Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, is an option if the exact cause of your allergies can be pinpointed. Immunotherapy involves a long series of injections, but it can significantly reduce symptoms and medication needs.

Your physician can help pinpoint what you are allergic to, and tell you the best way to treat your nasal allergy symptoms. Provide detailed information about your lifestyle and habits to your healthcare providers. It will help them to help you with an appropriate treatment plan for relieving your symptoms.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology has some useful tips for those who suffer from seasonal allergies:

  • Wash bed sheets weekly in hot water.
  • Always bathe and wash hair before bedtime (pollen can collect on skin and hair throughout the day).
  • Do not hang clothes outside to dry where they can trap pollens.
  • Wear a filter mask when mowing or working outdoors. Also, if you can, avoid peak times for pollen exposure (hot, dry, windy days, usually between 10 am and 4 pm). Although pollens are usually emitted in early morning, peak times for dissemination are between around 10 am and 4 pm.
  • Be aware of local pollen counts in your area (visit the National Allergy Bureau Website).
  • Keep house, office and car windows closed; use air conditioning if possible rather than opening windows.
  • Perform a thorough spring cleaning of your home, including replacing heating and A/C filters and cleaning ducts and vents.
  • Check bathrooms and other damp areas in your home frequently for mold and mildew, and remove visible mold with nontoxic cleaners.
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom and off of furniture, since they may carry pollen if they have been outdoors (or exacerbate your allergies if, for example, you’re allergic to cat dander).

For allergy information from NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, visit www.niaid.nih.gov/publications/allergies.htm. For prevention strategies from NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, visit www.niehs.nih.gov/airborne/prevent/intro.html.

# # #

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!

Tips for Staying Healthy Throughout the Winter Months

When winter hits, our bodies change. Our lips get chapped, our skin dries out, and our mood may vary like the weather. Often, we don’t get as much exercise as we did in the warmer weather, our exposure to the sun is limited, and the contrast between the extreme cold outdoors and the constant dry air indoors from radiators and heating systems plays havoc with our skin, respiratory and circulatory systems.

Here are suggested practices that can help us feel healthier in the winter, physically and mentally:

  • For chapped lips, drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, and use a humidifier at home – especially in your bedroom – or in your office and other living areas, if possible. Liberally apply a lip balm with sunscreen, beeswax or petroleum jelly to your lips every time you go outside, and try to avoid licking your lips, which may crack the skin.
  • For dried skin and hands, it’s important to replace essential oils that treat and preserve the skin, and to wear gloves when outdoors. Try to keep hands as dry as possible, though don’t stop washing your hands regularly to avoid germs. Apply glycerin-based moisturizer when you awake, before you retire for the evening, and whenever your hands feel dry throughout the day.

Also, avoid soaps that further dry out your skin. Replace them with super-fatted, fragrance-free soaps, whether bar or liquid, for cleansing, and moisturizers. Humectants – like urea, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and propylene glycol – absorb water from the air. They are oil-free. Emollients like baby or mineral oil, plant oils (like jojoba oil), petroleum jelly, lanolin, stearic acid – replace oils in the skin. Many moisturizers contain a combination. You may want to skip some anti-aging moisturizers in winter. Those that contain retinoids can further irritate already dry, sensitive skin.

  • Exfoliate. To get the most out of your moisturizer, exfoliate. Clearing away dead skin cells lets a moisturizer better penetrate dry skin. Exfoliate gently with a moisturizer that contains lactic acid or salicylic acid. If your skin is really dry or irritated, ask your doctor before starting a new skin care product or regimen. Don’t forget feet and heels, too, which tend to get dry and chapped in the winter.
  • Adjust showers. Long, hot showers can actually draw water from our skin. Appealing as a hot shower is on a cold morning, lukewarm water is a better choice. It won’t strip away skin’s natural oils. And a glycerin- or hyaluronic acid-based moisturizer can increase the amount of water that’s drawn into your skin. Baby oil (mineral oil) is also a good choice, because it prevents water from evaporating from your skin. Also, if possible, shampoo every other day instead of daily. Shampoos and excess shampooing can strip hair of moisture. Use warm water and a mild shampoo with sunscreen. Apply extra conditioner to keep your hair hydrated, shiny and soft. Don’t over-style with the blow dryer or flat iron, and protect your hair from the elements by wearing a hat.
  • Wear sunscreen when outdoors. Skiers and other winter athletes are at special risk of sunburn because snow reflects sunlight. In fact, it bounces 80 percent of the sun’s rays back to us, compared to less than 20 percent for sand and surf. Even if you’re not exercising or recreating outdoors, you still need the protection of a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more. Apply daily, and reapply at least every two hours if you’re outside.
  • Dress for the weather. It sounds like obvious advice, but look around you when you’re outdoors, and you’ll notice many people dressed improperly for the cold. Frostnip – a mild form of frostbite – tends to affect the earlobes, cheeks, nose, fingers, and toes. Signs of frostnip include pale skin, numbness, or tingling in the affected area. Avoid frostnip by dressing warmly – including hat, ear muffs, and gloves. The best treatment is to re-warm the affected areas; although frostnip is uncomfortable, it doesn’t cause any damage to skin.

Frostbite, however, is far more serious and can cause lasting damage. Deeper tissues freeze, causing skin to become hard, pale, and cold. It may ache but lack sensitivity to touch. As the area thaws, it becomes red and painful. Hands, feet, nose and ears are most vulnerable, but any body part can be affected. Treat frostbite by getting to a warm place, wrapping affected areas in sterile dressings (separate fingers and toes) and going to an emergency department immediately. Don’t rewarm affected areas if there’s a chance they could freeze again.

  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids, especially water. If you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated! Also, be aware of liquids like coffee and alcohol that do not hydrate. To the contrary, they have dieretic effects, which cause you to lose more fluid from your body or, in the case of alcohol, lower your body temperature. Dehydration also weakens our immune system, making our bodies less effective in fighting off colds, flu and other infections. 
  • Get plenty of rest. When we sleep, our body recovers, refreshes and recharges. Sleep is crucial for our body to replenish and boost our immune system to fight off infections and keep us healthy. When we are run down, sleep deprived, and/or stressed, our immune defenses are down and our body is more susceptible to illness. 
  • Eat properly and healthfully. Eating a balanced diet is a key to staying healthy. Getting essential nutrients by eating fruits and vegetables and limiting unhealthy fats will keep our immune systems strong and healthy. Drink more milk, particularly low-fat if possible, and include five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Avoid sugary treats, and try winter vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, and turnips. Also, ingesting foods with essential fatty acids like omega-3s help make up skin’s natural, moisture-retaining oil barrier. Add essential fatty acid boost with omega-3-rich foods like flax, walnuts, and safflower oil, as well as cold-water fish such as tuna, herring, halibut, salmon, sardines, and mackerel.
  • Continue exercising. No matter the weather, walking, at the very least, is important to cardiac and respiratory health and to help us maintain a healthier weight. Walk indoors, go to a gym, mall or fitness center, or dress properly for the weather and walk, hike, cross-country or downhill ski, ice skate . . . it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you remain active!

# # #

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!

How to Beat Those Cold and Flu Blues

If you’re not already a budding germophobe, spend a few hours shopping, in school, eating in a restaurant or doing your thing at work and note the sneezing, wheezing, sniffling and runny noses confirming that, indeed, cold and flu season is upon us again. You could wear a mask and gloves or only venture out when absolutely necessary. But that’s silly, especially since there are simple, proven steps you can take to greatly reduce your risk of getting sick.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the single most important thing we can do to keep from getting sick and spreading illness to others is to clean our hands. As you touch people, surfaces, and objects throughout the day, you accumulate germs on your hands. In turn, you can infect yourself with these germs by touching your eyes, nose, or mouth…and food.

Although it’s impossible to keep your hands germ-free, washing your hands frequently helps limit the transfer of bacteria, viruses, and other microbes. According to CDC research, some viruses and bacteria can live from 20 minutes up to two hours or more on surfaces like cafeteria tables, doorknobs, ATM machines and desks. So wash before and after you use a restroom. Wash after you visit the supermarket, ride a bus or train, or use an ATM. When it isn’t easy to wash your hands, use a hand sanitizer. Also, don’t use anyone else’s toothbrush, and avoid sharing food, drinks or eating off of one another’s plates.

Everyone sneezes, but we can do a better job of keeping it to ourselves. Sneeze into your sleeve or in a tissue or hanky so you don’t infect innocent passersby or fellow employees. Airborne pathogens spread highly contagious viral or bacterial infections, and incubation time — the days it takes for germs to turn into something truly icky in your system — allows you to spread those germs to many other people before you even realize you’re infectious. Finally, when you know you’re sick, stay home!

What you need to know about the flu

Influenza — the flu– is not pretty. It’s far worse than a cold, includes body aches and fever, hangs around longer than a typical virus, is contagious, and can sideline you for a week or two.

Aside from the short-term misery and lost work or school days, flu can have more serious implications. Most people who get the seasonal flu recover just fine. But the seasonal flu also hospitalizes 200,000 people in the United States alone each year. It kills between 3,000 and 49,000 people annually, depending on the variety of flu and length of the season. That’s close to the number of women killed by breast cancer each year, and more than twice the number of people killed by AIDS. And it’s particularly dangerous to children, seniors and adults with other chronic illnesses or autoimmune disorders.

Beyond hand washing, the best prevention is to get a flu shot. Flu vaccines are very safe and can’t infect you with the flu. Injected flu vaccines only contain dead virus, and a dead virus can’t infect you. There is one type of live virus flu vaccine, the nasal vaccine, FluMist. But in this case, the virus is specially engineered to remove the parts of the virus that make people sick. The standard flu vaccine can be dangerous if you’re allergic to eggs, so you should always talk with your doctor before taking the vaccine.

Note that antibiotics won’t help you fight the flu, which is not caused by bacteria, but by a virus. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily weakens your body’s ability to fight bacterial illnesses, since many bacteria become resistant to antibiotics due to overuse and inappropriate prescribing practices.

However, there are instances of flu complications that involve bacterial infection. The flu virus can weaken your body and allow bacterial invaders to infect you. Secondary bacterial infections due to the flu include bronchitis, ear infections, sinusitis, and most often, pneumonia. The flu doesn’t peak until February or March, and it hits all across the country, so November is a good time to get your flu shot, while there’s still plenty of time to protect yourself and your family.

There’s no guarantee you won’t get sick this winter, but you can improve your odds tremendously. Eat well, exercise, and dress for the weather. Avoid going places when you’re not feeling well, get your flu vaccination, and wash your hands regularly. Take charge of your health, and the flu and colds can bug someone else!

###

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!

Listen to Your Mouth. It Has Much to Say!

Oral health is not only important to your appearance and sense of well-being, but also to your overall health. Cavities and gum disease may contribute to many serious conditions, such as diabetes and respiratory disease, and untreated cavities can be painful and lead to serious infections. Poor oral health has been linked to sleeping problems, as well as behavioral and developmental problems in children. It can also affect your ability to chew and digest food properly.

Gum disease is an inflammation of the gums, which may also affect the bone supporting the teeth. Plaque is a sticky, colorless film of bacteria that constantly builds up, thickens and hardens on the teeth. If it is not removed by daily brushing and flossing, this plaque can harden into tartar and may contribute to infections in the gums. Left untreated, gum disease can lead to the loss of teeth and an increased risk of more serious illnesses.

The bacteria in plaque can travel from the mouth to the lungs, causing infection or aggravating existing lung conditions. It creates risks for heart patients, too, as it can travel through the bloodstream and get lodged in narrow arteries, contributing to heart attacks. There also is a link between diabetes and gum disease. People with diabetes are more susceptible to gum disease and it can put them at greater risk of diabetic complications.

Often overlooked, flossing our teeth is a critical part of good oral hygiene and should be practiced adjunct to brushing daily. While brushing is critical, flossing does about 40 percent of the work required to remove plaque from the hard-to-reach spaces between our teeth.

Most floss is made of either nylon or Teflon, and both are equally effective. People with larger spaces between their teeth or with gum recession (loss of gum tissue, which exposes the roots of the teeth) tend to get better results with a flat, wide dental tape. If teeth are close together, try thin floss that bills itself as “shred resistant.”

Bridges and braces require more effort to get underneath the restorations or wires and between the teeth. Use a floss threader, which looks like a plastic sewing needle. Or look for a product called Super Floss that has one stiff end to fish the floss through the teeth, followed by a spongy segment and regular floss for cleaning.

Here are some tips for proper flossing:

  • Perfect your flossing technique. Use a piece of floss 15 to 18 inches long. Wind the floss around the middle fingers of each hand, leaving a one-inch section open for flossing. Place the floss in your mouth and use your index fingers to push the floss between the teeth. Be careful not to push too hard and injure the gums. Floss the top teeth first, then the bottom. Slide it between the teeth, wrap it around each tooth in the shape of a “C,” and polish with an up and down motion. Floss between each tooth as well as behind the back teeth, and use a clean section of floss as needed and take up used floss by winding it around the fingers.
  • Don’t worry about a little blood. Bleeding means the gums are inflamed because plaque has built up and needs to be cleaned away. It is not uncommon, especially for “new” flossers, and shouldn’t deter you. Bleeding after a few days, however, could be a sign of periodontal disease. Talk to your dentist.
  • Get a floss holder. If you lack the hand dexterity to floss, try soft wooden plaque removers, which look similar to toothpicks, or a two-pronged plastic floss holder. Both allow you to clean between teeth with one hand.

Good oral health plays a critical role in helping maintain your overall wellness. See your dentist regularly, watch what you eat, and pay attention to what your mouth is telling you!

# # #

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!

Taking Your Best Shot at Long-Term Wellness

If you’re like most adults, you probably can’t remember the last time you had a tetanus shot unless you stepped on a nail or caught an arm on a rusty metal fence. Checking up on your personal immunization record, and making sure your loved ones are properly immunized as well, is a simple and critical step for helping to protect yourself and your family from preventable illness and related serious medical conditions.

Improved sanitation, hygiene, and other living conditions have created a generally healthier environment and reduced the risks for disease exposure and infection in the United States. However, the dramatic and long-term decrease of diseases is primarily a result of widespread immunizations throughout the U.S. population.

Even though some diseases, such as polio, rarely affect people in the U.S., all of the recommended childhood immunizations and booster vaccines are still needed. These diseases still exist in other countries. Travelers can unknowingly bring these diseases into the U.S. and infect people who have not been immunized. Without the protection from immunizations, these diseases could be imported and could quickly spread through the population, causing epidemics. Non-immunized people living in healthy conditions are not protected from disease; only immunizations prepare the immune system to fight the disease organisms.

August is National Immunization Awareness Month. Apathy, fear and lack of information are the greater culprits in not protecting ourselves and our children from preventable illnesses. Most of us choose to immunize our children from the day they’re born. In fact, children can’t attend public school, go to camp, compete in many sports or travel outside of the country without a proven medical history of required immunizations. But as adults, we may not have received all the necessary immunizations, some of them may no longer be working effectively, and others, such as the vaccination for tetanus, have to be repeated periodically…in the case of tetanus, once every 10 years.

Today, children and adults receive a “Tdap” booster for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. If you doubt the importance of this, note that pertussis (Whooping Cough) has recently reappeared in Connecticut. Pertussis is caused by bacteria spread through direct contact with respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The reason for its reemergence, experts believe, is because our bodies may have stopped producing antibodies in response to the vaccinations we received as children, or because some parents are not protecting their children through recommended vaccinations. This disease is particularly dangerous for babies, so protecting yourself also protects others.

Diphtheria, also prevented through the Tdap booster, is a very contagious bacterial disease that affects the respiratory system, including the lungs. As with pertussis and another common contagious disease, tuberculosis, diphtheria bacteria can be passed from person to person by direct contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. When people are infected, the diphtheria bacteria produce a toxin in the body that can cause weakness, sore throat, low-grade fever, and swollen glands in the neck. Effects from this toxin can also lead to swelling of the heart muscle and, in some cases, heart failure. In severe cases, the illness can cause coma, paralysis, and even death.

The third leg of that triad involves tetanus (lockjaw), which also can be prevented by the Tdap vaccine. Tetanus is caused by bacteria found in soil. The bacteria enter the body through a wound, such as a deep cut. When people are infected, the bacteria produce a toxin in the body that causes serious, painful spasms and stiffness of all muscles in the body. This can lead to “locking” of the jaw so a person cannot open his or her mouth, swallow, or breathe. Complete recovery from tetanus can take months. Three of 10 people who get tetanus die from the disease.

A good rule of thumb is that if you can’t remember if or when you had your Tdap booster, talk to your doctor. Additionally, if you plan to travel outside of the United States or Canada, it’s wise to speak with your physician or an infectious disease specialist about immunizations to consider, such as protection against Hepatitis A, before traveling. In many foreign countries, especially third-world nations, diseases can still be contracted through impure water systems, through food that hasn’t been properly protected, and by air-borne particles.

But even if you aren’t traveling abroad, it’s important to know your medical history and to obtain a copy of your personal immunization record. That’s especially valuable if you can’t remember if you ever had common diseases such as mumps, chicken pox, rubella and measles, all of which still afflict thousands of Americans. In many cases, vaccinations to prevent these diseases may not have existed when you were a child, but they do now.

If your personal record doesn’t exist or has been lost, your physician can order a simple blood test that checks for the antibodies currently active in your system. He or she can then offer you the missing vaccinations, bringing you up-to-date as required. Typically, you’ll only have to do this once, unlike the vaccination for preventing influenza, which has to be received annually since strains of “flu” mutate or change from year to year. Influenza may lead to hospitalization or even death, even among previously healthy children, so it’s smart to speak with your doctor annually about whether or not you should respond proactively rather than take your chances.

Protecting ourselves and our loved ones is our most important job. Today’s medical advances and access make that far easier, but only if we each take personal responsibility to ensure that our immunizations are up-to-date. For more information, call toll free 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636) or visit http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines.

###

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!

Control the bites, day and night

How’s that old song go? Summertime, and the biting is easy?! Once the late spring rain subsides and July arrives, heat and fireworks aren’t the only things driving us crazy. Insects of every possible shape and variety are numerous, noisy, defensive, and hungry. Many of these pesky little creatures leave us alone, but the more aggressive species will bug us to distraction, and their bites or stings can cause allergic reactions, discomfort, itchy side effects or illness.

Unless you plan to spend the summer indoors, you’re likely to come in contact with some of these annoying critters. You can improve your odds of not getting bitten by wearing protective clothing, headgear and socks, using insect repellants and citronella products, minimizing use of cologne and perfume when planning outdoor activities, avoiding swampy areas, and moving the party indoors during the height of bite time. You also can spray clothes with repellent containing permethrin, and use a repellant like DEET on your skin.

Practice avoidance, and be prepared

If you know you have an allergy to one of these insects, you should always carry an epi-pen or other backup medication in case you’re stung or bitten, and seek immediate medical attention. For the rest of us, most bites or stings leave a mark and cause some swelling and irritation. Ice or a cool compress applied directly to the site can bring relief, as can topical salves, ointments or sprays sold over the counter. If the area around the bite continues to expand or becomes blistery and weepy, you have to get checked for a possible infection.

If you’re not aware of allergies but react dramatically, experiencing symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, vomiting, trouble breathing or extensive swelling, it’s important to get to a hospital, urgent care center or physician immediately, or to call for emergency medical assistance as quickly as possible.

Protecting against ticks and mosquitoes

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

Avoid direct contact with ticks and mosquitoes as 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. You can repel ticks and mosquitoes with DEET or Permethrin.

  • 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.

Handling ticks

Ticks embedded in your skin can be gross, but painless. The best bet is to keep them at bay. But if they do find you, 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 you.
  • Conduct a full-body tick check using a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your 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 your doctor or a nurse (or internet sources) to determine the best method for removing the tick; it’s important to remove the entire tick, or it can leave parts embedded in your skin.

Should you or a family member develop a bulls-eye-type red rash near the bite site, or exhibit other side effects such as a fever, lethargy or extreme exhaustion, consult your doctor. You may need to be tested for Lyme disease, which is common in New England and treated with antibiotics.

Other biting and stinging insects

Here’s a brief primer on stinging and biting insects most common in the Northeast:

Spiders:  Most spiders in New England are relatively harmless as long as you’re not allergic to their bite. One of the common venomous spiders in this region is the Brown Recluse. You can identify this spider by the violin-shaped marking on its back. The bite produces a mild stinging, followed by local redness and intense pain within eight hours. A fluid-filled blister forms at the site and then sloughs off to leave a deep, enlarging ulcer. Reactions from a Brown Recluse spider bite vary from a mild fever and rash to nausea and listlessness. On rare occasions death results, more often in children.

If bitten by a spider, try and identify the type of spider that bit you. Clean the site of the spider bite well with soap and water. Apply a cool compress over the spider bite location. If the bite is on an extremity, elevate it. Aspirin or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and antihistamines may be used to relieve minor signs and symptoms in adults. Use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.

Honeybees are commonly found throughout the United States. They usually nest in hives built in hollow trees or rock crevices or in building walls. They are not usually aggressive unless they are near their hive. They sting only once and leave behind a barbed stinger with a small venom sac attached.

Wasps are able to sting more than once. They build paper nests that resemble a bee’s honeycomb without any covering. They usually nest under eaves or rain gutters, behind shutters, in crevices and vent openings, and sometimes on the underside of wooden decks and outdoor furniture. You can often see wasps on the outside of their nests.

Yellow jackets are a kind of wasp that are aggressive and sting with little or no provocation, especially when near food. They are able to sting more than once and usually do not lose their stinger. They are more common in the late summer and fall. They usually make their nests underground, but nests may be found in walls, crevices, and hollow logs as well. They are attracted to food and may be found around open trash cans and dumpsters. You may come upon a yellow jacket while doing yard work, gardening, or farming.

Hornets are closely related to wasps; in fact, the hornet is a specific type of wasp. There is only one species of hornet present in North America and is not particularly aggressive.

# # #

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!

Scratch Weeks of Discomfort, Not Outdoor Fun

As the summer approaches we’re back outdoors enjoying hiking, camping, and picnicking. We’re working in our yards, attending sporting events and barbeques, and loving the warm weather and beautiful flowers. However, there’s a serious side to outdoor play. We don’t want to sound like a teaser for a Steven King novel, but there are certain dangers lurking in the trees and among the bushes, trails and woods that we need to know about. These aren’t necessarily all life threatening, but certainly can be annoying and, in some cases, can lead to serious illness or even death. We’re not talking lions, tigers, and bears (oh my), but about poisonous plants.

Poisonous plants adorn trails, parks, yards, golf courses and ballfields across the Northeastern United States. While it goes without saying that we should never pick and eat a wild berry we don’t know and recognize distinctly (like wild blueberries or blackberries), there are dozens of inviting berries growing in bushes along paths that can sicken or kill us if ingested. Same goes for toadstools (mushrooms) growing in the wild. Don’t even touch them, unless you are trained and know what you’re doing.

Plants poison people in two ways – contact with the skin and contact with the mouth, including swallowing. Reactions range from mild skin irritation to much more serious effects. It is common that one part of a plant is poisonous while other parts are not.

Different types of poisonous plants affect the body differently. Stomach upset, including vomiting and diarrhea, and skin rash are the most common problems. Some examples of plants that can cause stomach upset include pokeweed, ivy, Jerusalem cherry, and the bulbs of the daffodil, and iris. Poinsettia can be a mild irritant, but only in very large quantities, and is not considered to be very poisonous.

Almost any plant can cause a skin rash (dermatitis) in sensitive people. Daisy, black-eyed-susan, and hyacinth are some common examples of plants that can cause dermatitis. Additionally, some plants have calcium oxalate crystals, which cause burning and swelling of the throat, tongue, and mouth. Jack-in-the-pulpit, philodendron, and dieffenbachia are among the many plants that have this needle-like irritant. Rhubarb contains another type of oxalate. Eating large amounts of rhubarb leaves may damage the kidneys and other organs.

Foxglove, lily-of-the-valley, and oleander are very toxic. They are examples of cardiac glycosides. Cardiac glycosides can affect the heart rate and rhythm. Symptoms may include nausea and vomiting, belly pain, slowed heart rate, irregular heart rhythm, dropping blood pressure, and lethargy. Death may occur in severe cases.

Avoiding the most common intruders — poisonous ivies

The most common poisonous plants we typically see in Connecticut include Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac. Each of these can produce a topical reaction that includes a rash, itching, and weepy open sores and blisters that easily spread when scratched or touched. People who are highly allergic can be affected by spores carried in the air, or when the poisonous leaves are burned, but most people react after touching or brushing up against the plants or items that have been in contact with the plants’ oils. In more serious cases, the reaction can spread across the body, and even get into your bloodstream.

  • Poison Ivy usually has three broad, spoon-shaped leaves or leaflets (“Leaves of three? Let it be!”), but it can have more. It may grow as a climbing or low-spreading vine that sprawls through or as a shrub. It’s common to see it along fences and stone walls, and throughout wooded areas. Most people are allergic to the oily resin or sap of poison ivy. You can get a rash by touching any part of the poison ivy plant, or anything that has come in contact with poison ivy and still has the oily resin on it (for example, gardening equipment and tools, toys, pets, clothing, shoes, gardening gloves, camping equipment and sports gear).
  • Poison Sumac has seven to 13 leaflets per leaf stem. The leaves have smooth edges and pointed tips. Poison sumac grows as a shrub or small tree. It is found in wooded, swampy areas and in wet, wooded areas.
  • Poison Oak has leaves that look like oak leaves, usually with three leaflets but sometimes up to seven leaflets per leaf group. It grows as a vine or a shrub. Poison oak is more common in the western United States, but is also found in the eastern United States.

Plants may look different depending on the season and the area where they are growing. But all of these plants have small white, tan, cream, or yellow berries in the fall. Their berries can help distinguish them from harmless but similar plants. Also, after the leaves have fallen off, these plants can sometimes be identified by the black color on areas where the oil in the plant has been exposed to air.

The best approach for beating any allergic reaction is to avoid the source that triggers it. Here are some tips to help you steer clear of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac:

  • Avoid areas where you know poisonous plants grow, whenever possible.
  • Cover up with closed shoes, socks, long pants, long sleeves, and gloves. Wash any clothes that come in contact with poisonous plants as soon as you can.
  • If you do get exposed, wash your skin with soap and water, or rubbing alcohol. Though the timeframe varies by person, you have about 10 minutes to wash a poisonous plant’s oil off your skin before the stage is set for a rash.
  • Scrub under your nails. You can spread poison ivy to other parts of your body by having the oil on your fingers.
  • If you suspect your pet has rolled around in a poisonous plant, give him a bath with pet shampoo and water — before you hug or touch him. Wear rubber gloves while you give your pet a bath.
  • Oil from poison ivy and other poisonous plants can get on golf clubs, balls, bats, and any other objects, and can remain potent for as long as five years. Make it a habit to wash sports equipment, gardening tools, and other outdoor items with soap and water.

Ultimately, if you do come in contact with and react to one of these common poisonous plants, there are a variety of over-the-counter remedies, lotions and drugs (such as strong antihistamines like Benadryl, and topical treatments such as hydrocortisone) available. The best advice always is to seek professional assistance from your physician or pharmacist to see what’s recommended, how to care for yourself, and how it might react with other drugs or medicine you may be taking. In serious cases where the rash is spreading quickly and leaving blisters or sores, you should seek immediate medical attention from a physician or medical center. You may require a stronger medicine administered by injection, or other care to prevent the infection from entering your bloodstream and potentially causing internal damage.

Being outdoors is healthy and fun, but you still have to be careful. We’ll save common biting insects and snakes for another day!

# # #
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!

Sunny Side Up: Good for Breakfast, Not for Our Skin

It’s already May, and we’re outdoors again as much as possible, enjoying the mild weather and longer days. We love the stunning spring colors, and those seasonal rituals like squeezing into our spring wardrobes, first barbeques, and basking in the sun. But remember: While we’re savoring the warmth and working on that early tan, we’re also soaking up damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Every year we hear stories about the importance of covering up, applying sunscreen, and donning hats. But we’re creatures of habit, and procrastinators…maybe a little sun now, and then we’ll hit the shelves for sunscreen when it really gets hot!  But that’s a mistake – in fact, we should be protecting ourselves from damaging UV rays all year round.

May is UV and Skin Cancer Awareness Month. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Unprotected exposure to UV radiation is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer. In fact, UV radiation from the sun and from tanning beds is classified as a human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization. Each year, more new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. than new cases of breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer combined. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, and one American dies from skin cancer every hour.

Chronic exposure to the sun suppresses our natural immune system and also causes premature aging, which over time can make the skin become thick, wrinkled, and leathery. Since it occurs gradually, often manifesting itself many years after the majority of a person’s sun exposure, premature aging is often regarded as an unavoidable, normal part of growing older. However, up to 90 percent of the visible skin changes commonly attributed to aging are caused by the sun. With proper protection from UV radiation, many forms of skin cancer and most premature aging of the skin can be avoided.

How to protect yourself from UV exposure

The best way to lower your risk of skin cancer is to protect your skin from the sun and ultraviolet light. Using sunscreen and avoiding the sun help reduce the chance of many aging skin changes, including some skin cancers. However, it is important not to rely too much on sunscreen alone. You should also not use sunscreen as an excuse to increase the amount of time you spend in the sun. Even with the use of sunscreens, people should not stay out too long during peak sunlight hours; UV rays can still penetrate your clothes and skin and do harm.

When possible, avoid sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 am to 4 pm, when UV rays are the strongest. Clouds and haze do not protect you from the sun, so use sun protection even on cloudy days. Use sunscreens that block out both UVA and UVB radiation. Products that contain either zinc oxide or titanium oxide offer the best protection. Less expensive products that have the same ingredients work as well as expensive ones. Older children and adults (even those with darker skin) benefit from using SPFs (sun protection factor) of 15 and over. Many experts recommend that most people use SPF 30 or higher on the face and 15 or higher on the body, and people who burn easily or have risk factors for skin cancer should use SPF 50+.

Here are helpful tips on when and how to use sunscreen:

  • Adults and children should wear sunscreen every day, even if they go outdoors for only a short time.
  • Apply 30 minutes before going outdoors for best results. This allows time for the sunscreen to be absorbed.
  • Remember to use sunscreen during the winter when snow and sun are both present.
  • Reapply at least every two hours while you are out in the sunlight.
  • Reapply after swimming or sweating. Waterproof formulas last for about 40 minutes in the water, and water-resistant formulas last half as long.

Wearing sunscreen is critical, but only half the battle. Here are additional safety tips and information for protecting yourself from harmful UV radiation:

  • Adults and children should wear hats with wide brims to shield from the sun’s rays.
  • Wear protective clothing. Look for loose-fitting, unbleached, tightly woven fabrics. The tighter the weave, the more protective the garment.
  • Avoid sun lamps, tanning beds, and tanning salons.
  • Buy clothing and swimwear that block out UV rays. This clothing is rated using SPF (as used with sunscreen) or a system called the ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) index.
  • Avoid surfaces that reflect light, such as water, sand, concrete, snow, and white-painted areas.
  • Beware that at higher altitudes you burn more quickly.

###

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!

It’s April, Let the Sneezing Begin!

It seems like every spring we hear news reports about it being “the worst allergy season in years.” While most of us look forward to the warmer weather this is a difficult time of year for millions of Americans. The severity of allergy season can vary according to where you live, the weather, indoor contaminants, and many other elements. But if you’re an allergy sufferer, you know that sneezing, wheezing, and running for the tissue box is upon us.

Seasonal allergic rhinitis is usually caused by molds releasing spores into the air, or by trees, grasses, and weeds releasing their pollens. Outdoor molds are very common, especially after a spring thaw. They are found in soil, mulch, fallen leaves, and rotting wood. Everybody is exposed to mold and pollen, but only some people develop allergies. In these people, the immune system, which protects us from invaders like viruses and bacteria, reacts to a normally harmless substance called an allergen (allergy-causing compound). Specialized immune cells called mast cells and basophils then release chemicals like histamine that lead to the symptoms of allergy: sneezing, coughing, a runny or clogged nose, postnasal drip, and itchy eyes and throat.

What you should know about allergy medicines

During an allergic reaction, tissues in your nose may swell in response to contact with the allergen. That swelling produces fluid and mucous. Blood vessels in the eyes can also swell, causing redness. Decongestants work by shrinking swollen nasal tissues and blood vessels, relieving the symptoms of nasal swelling, congestion, mucus secretion, and redness. However, decongestants may raise blood pressure, so they typically are not recommended for people who have blood pressure problems or glaucoma. They may also cause insomnia or irritability and restrict urinary flow.

Some allergy drugs contain both an antihistamine and a decongestant to relieve multiple allergy symptoms. Other drugs have multiple effects aside from just blocking the effects of histamine, such as preventing mast cells from releasing other allergy-inducing chemicals. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that the combination of antihistamines and nasal steroids is very effective in those with moderate or severe symptoms of allergic rhinitis. However, always consult with your physician before taking even over-the-counter medicines for allergies, as they may conflict with other medications or aggravate symptoms of other illnesses or chronic conditions.

Steroids, known medically as corticosteroids, can reduce inflammation associated with allergies. They prevent and treat nasal stuffiness, sneezing, and itchy, runny nose due to seasonal or year-round allergies. They can also decrease inflammation and swelling from other types of allergic reactions.

Steroids are available in various forms: As pills or liquids for serious allergies or asthma, locally acting inhalers for asthma, locally acting nasal sprays for seasonal or year-round allergies, topical creams for skin allergies, or topical eye drops for allergic conjunctivitis. In addition to steroid medications, your physician may decide to prescribe additional types of medications to help combat your allergic symptoms.

Steroids are highly effective drugs for allergies, but they must be taken regularly, often daily, to be of benefit — even when you aren’t feeling allergy symptoms. In addition, it may take one to two weeks before the full effect of the medicine can be felt.

Another potential solution is cromolyn sodium, a nasal spray that inhibits the release of chemicals like histamine from mast cells. But you must start taking it several days before an allergic reaction begins, which is not always practical, and its use can be habit forming. Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, is an option if the exact cause of your allergies can be pinpointed. Immunotherapy involves a long series of injections, but it can significantly reduce symptoms and medication needs.

Your doctor can help you determine whether treatments are necessary, such as prescription or nonprescription antihistamines to control the symptoms of hay fever. Whether or not you take medication for hay fever, you can still take steps to reduce the severity of your symptoms. Here are some useful tips for those who suffer from seasonal allergies:

  • Wash bed sheets weekly in hot water
  • Always bathe and wash hair before bedtime (pollen can collect on skin and hair throughout the day)
  • Do not hang clothes outside to dry where they can trap pollens
  • Wear a filter mask when mowing or working outdoors. Also, if you can, avoid peak times for pollen exposure (hot, dry, windy days, usually between 10 am and 4 pm). Although pollens are usually emitted in early morning, peak times for dissemination are late morning through late afternoon
  • Be aware of local pollen counts in your area
  • Keep house, office and car windows closed; use air conditioning if possible rather than opening windows
  • Perform a thorough spring cleaning of your home, including replacing heating and A/C filters and cleaning ducts and vents
  • Check bathrooms and other damp areas in your home frequently for mold and mildew, and remove visible mold with nontoxic cleaners
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom and off of furniture, since they may carry pollen if they have been outdoors (or exacerbate your allergies if, for example, you’re allergic to cat dander)

# # #

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!