All the Dirt on Antibacterial Soaps, Colds, and the Flu

The long hot days of summer have blown by as if propelled by Hurricane Hermine’s winds. The sun sets earlier, sugar maples are starting to tinge, and the evenings already bear traces of autumn chill. September is upon us – the kids are back in school, pumpkins are showing up in the supermarkets, and the “Get your flu shot here” signs are appearing all around us. Sadly, colds, influenza, and throat, ear and sinus infections can’t be far behind.

With kids and adults in close proximity, poor hand-washing habits, and everyone sneezing around us, our natural immunities to bacterial and viral infections are taxed, leaving us more likely to contract a variety of illnesses. The late summer and early fall also bring a resurgence in seasonal allergies. Sometimes it’s hard to tell one malady from another  . . . with the aches and pains, runny noses, itchy throats and increased body temperature, we’re off to the doctor in search of an antibiotic, or searching at the drug store for magic pills to cure or, at the least, relieve us.

Many of the illnesses that wreak havoc in the autumn and winter are caused by bacteria or viruses, and it’s important to know the difference. Bacteria are single-celled organisms usually found all over the inside and outside of our bodies, except in the blood and spinal fluid. Many bacteria are not harmful. In fact, some are actually beneficial. However, disease-causing bacteria trigger illnesses such as strep throat and some ear infections. Viruses are even smaller than bacteria. A virus cannot survive outside the body’s cells. It causes illnesses by invading healthy cells and reproducing.

Antibiotics are our chosen line of offense against many types of infections, but they don’t work against all. For example, we should not treat viral infections such as colds, the flu, sore throats (unless caused by strep), most coughs, and some ear infections with antibiotics.

Antibiotics are drugs that fight infections caused by bacteria. After the first use of antibiotics in the 1940s, they transformed medical care and dramatically reduced illness and death from infectious diseases. The term “antibiotic” originally referred to a natural compound produced by a fungus or another microorganism that kills bacteria which cause disease in humans or animals. Although antibiotics have many beneficial effects, their use has contributed to the problem of antibiotic resistance, which is the ability of bacteria or other microbes to resist the effects of an antibiotic.

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in some ways that reduce or eliminate the effectiveness of drugs, chemicals, or other agents designed to cure or prevent infections. The bacteria survive and continue to multiply causing more harm. Almost every type of bacteria has become stronger and less responsive to antibiotic treatment. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, schoolmates and co-workers, threatening the community with a new strain of infectious disease that is more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat.

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 we touch people, surfaces, and objects throughout the day, we accumulate germs on our hands. In turn, we can infect ourselves with these germs by touching our eyes, nose, or mouth and food.

Although it’s impossible to keep our hands germ-free, washing 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 using a restroom. Wash after visiting the supermarket, ride a bus or train, or using an ATM. When it isn’t easy to wash, use a hand sanitizer. Don’t use anyone else’s toothbrush, and avoid sharing food, drinks or eating off of one another’s plates. And in late-breaking news, stop using antibacterial soaps and products – they aren’t useful in protecting you, and are causing more damage than good.

Antibacterial soaps aren’t good for us

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently banned the sale of soaps containing certain antibacterial chemicals, saying industry had failed to prove they were safe to use over the long term or more effective than using ordinary soap and water.

In all the FDA took action against 19 different chemicals and has given industry a year to take them out of their products. About 40 percent of soaps – including liquid hand soap and bar soap – contain the chemicals. Triclosan, mostly used in liquid soap, and triclocarban, in bar soaps, are by far the most common.

The rule applies only to consumer hand washes and soaps. Other products may still contain the chemicals. The agency is also studying the safety and efficacy of hand sanitizers and wipes, and has asked companies for data on three active ingredients – alcohol (ethanol or ethyl alcohol), isopropyl alcohol and benzalkonium chloride – before issuing a final rule on them.

This decision comes after years of mounting concerns that the antibacterial chemicals that go into everyday products are doing more harm than good. Health experts have pushed the agency to regulate antimicrobial chemicals, warning that they risk damaging hormones in children and promote drug-resistant infections. Additionally, studies in animals have shown that triclosan and triclocarban can disrupt the normal development of the reproductive system and metabolism, and health experts warn that their effects could be the same in humans.

The chemicals were originally used by surgeons to wash their hands before operations. Their use has expanded significantly in recent years as manufacturers added them to a variety of products, including mouthwash, laundry detergent, fabrics and baby pacifiers. The CDC reports the chemicals from antibiotic soaps are found in the urine of three-quarters of Americans, one of the many factors they considered in issuing the ban.

The surest bet for a healthy fall and winter is to be vigilant about hand washing, and to take reasonable precautions such as getting flu shots (note that the CDC is questioning the effectiveness of the nasal spray version of the flu vaccine for the 2016/2017 flu season) and avoiding people who are coughing, feverish or obviously ill. When sick, try to stay home from work or school to avoid spreading the joy, and seek medical care if you feel you may require antibiotics or other medicinal remedies. You also can speak with your physician about antibiotic resistance, or take the time to learn more about this important subject by visiting reliable websites such as www.cdc.gov.


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!

Too much fun in the sun isn’t fun at all

Think about the years before wearing seat belts in automobiles was mandatory. Thousands of U.S. adults and children got seriously hurt or killed every year in car accidents, but that wasn’t enough to change behaviors. Safety officials and physicians advised people to install and use these restraints, and national legislation requiring mandatory seat belt installation in cars was passed in 1968. Still, it took until 1984 before the first state laws were passed requiring people to actually wear the belts. But thousands more died, unnecessarily, before seat belt use became commonplace.

Now, think about skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the United States.  Each year, over 5.4 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are treated in more than 3.3 million people, and 90 percent of them are the result of exposure to UV radiation. In fact, more new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed 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 (most often from melanoma, the most fatal type of skin cancer).  And if that isn’t sobering enough, contemplate the economic reality: The annual cost of treating U.S. skin cancer cases is estimated at $8.1 billion.

There certainly aren’t any laws requiring that we protect ourselves, but are we paying attention yet? Unprotected exposure to UV radiation is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer. In fact, UV radiation from the sun is classified as a human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization.

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 ourselves from excess UV exposure

The best way to lower our risk of developing skin cancer is to protect our 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, we can’t rely too much on sunscreen alone. Sunscreen and hats are helpful for reducing exposure, but not an excuse to increase the amount of time we 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 our clothes and skin and do harm.

If possible, avoid sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when UV rays are the strongest. Clouds and haze do not protect us 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+.

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.

 

Here are additional safety tips for protection 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.
  • 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 we burn more quickly.

We all need the vitamins from the sun and can still enjoy the outdoors, but taking proper precautions allows us to be outdoors more safely, year round, and to reduce the risks of developing skin cancers and other skin-related diseases. As the old seat belt commercials used to tell us, “Don’t become a statistic.” Whether applying to car seats, consumption of tobacco products, or sun exposure, that’s sound advice for us and our children.

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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!

Fending off the Zika virus

Thanks to the incessant coverage of the U.S. presidential nominating process, the Zika virus alarm bells being sounded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been temporarily overshadowed. But we are getting closer to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this August. In addition to the superb athletics, people will be buzzing about Zika, which has been far more widespread in South America than in North America. Cases have been reported here in Connecticut now, and people have to be cautious and concerned.

The Zika virus is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito. While this mosquito species is not currently present in Connecticut, a closely related species, Ae. albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito, and related species are and may become carriers of the disease in Connecticut.

The Ae. aegypti, also common known as the Yellow fever mosquito, is found throughout tropical regions of the world and are the same mosquitoes that spread dengue and chikungunya viruses. Mosquitoes become infected with the Zika virus when they bite a person already infected with the virus. Infected mosquitoes can then spread the virus to other people through bites.

Symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). According to the CDC, illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting several days to a week — deaths are rare. There is no vaccine to prevent or medicine to treat Zika virus infection; however there is medication to treat some of the symptoms.

People are cautioned to contact their health care provider if they develop symptoms after returning from areas where Zika virus has been identified.  Of enormous concern, Zika virus can spread from a pregnant woman to her fetus, which can cause serious birth defects. Because of this, pregnant women should not travel to areas where Zika is present. Zika virus can also be spread from men to women by sexual contact.

Zika virus was first discovered in 1947 and is named after the Zika forest in Uganda. In 1952, the first human cases of Zika were detected and since then, outbreaks of Zika have been reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Zika outbreaks have probably occurred in many locations. In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil, and on Feb 1, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern. Transmission has been reported in many other countries and territories, especially in Latin America. Brazil has confirmed 2,844 cases of Zika in pregnant women.

Avoid infection by preventing mosquito bites. Use insect repellent according to label instructions, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and hats, empty any items around your property that can hold water, and use air conditioning or window/door screens. It is important to practice these protective measures when traveling to areas where Zika virus is found, and these are useful steps to help reduce mosquito and insect bites in general.

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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!

Colds and Allergies are Something to Sneeze At

If you’re afflicted by seasonal allergies, chances are you’re already suffering. With the abnormally warm winter and early spring weather in Connecticut, trees and flowers were quick to bloom and the air is alive with pollen and mold spores. The tell-tale human signs – red eyes, sneezing, runny noses– are as common a sight as daffodils, crimson buds on trees and bright yellow forsythia bushes.

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.

If you’re sneezing and sniffling in April and your car is coated with yellow-green pollen, you may be able to point to seasonal allergies, or hay fever, especially if you get these symptoms at about the same time every year. Colds, however, can hit at any time of year — even during spring and summer — although they’re most common when the weather gets chilly.

There are a variety of over-the-counter and prescription medications you can take to help you cope with allergy season. But before you open your medicine cabinet or run to the pharmacy, try to self-diagnose so you know what you’re treating and how best to respond.

How fast your symptoms occur can also determine what’s ailing you. Allergies often start almost immediately after you’re exposed to your trigger. For example, if you have pollen allergies, as soon as that pollen gets into your system, you may have symptoms.

Cold germs typically take one to three days to make you sick. They generally linger for three days to about a week, but symptoms can persist up to two weeks in some people. Starting to feel better after a couple of days is a sign you’re probably on the mend from a cold. If you’re getting worse, your cold may have evolved into a bacterial infection. If symptoms last more than one to two weeks or get worse after about five days, you should see a doctor.

Allergy symptoms will last for as long as you’re exposed to the offending substance. So if you’re allergic to cat dander, once you leave your grandmother’s apartment and her beloved Persian, your sniffles should subside. If your trigger is pollen and you spend most of the spring months outdoors, you could be fighting symptoms for the whole season.

Remedies for what’s ailing you

Antihistamines target histamine, which your body makes when you have an allergic reaction.

You can take antihistamines as pills or nasal sprays. The pills target itching, sneezing, and runny nose. The nasal sprays work on congestion, an itchy or runny nose, and postnasal drip.

Antihistamines can ease symptoms once you have them, but they work best when you take them before you feel allergy symptoms. Taken regularly, antihistamines can build up in your blood to protect against allergens and prevent the release of histamines. Ask your doctor if you should start taking allergy medicine a couple of weeks before you usually have symptoms.

Decongestants cut down on the fluid in the lining of your nose. That relieves swollen nasal passages and congestion. You can take decongestants by mouth in pills or liquids, or by nasal spray. Common decongestants include pseudoephedrine and phenylephrine.

Some medications combine antihistamines and decongestants. For example, Allegra-D, Claritin-D, and Zyrtec-D combine an antihistamine with the decongestant pseudoephedrine. Some antihistamines and decongestants need a prescription. Others don’t. You could first try a nonprescription medicine and if you don’t get relief, check with your doctor to see if you need a prescription.

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.

Even if you take something that doesn’t require a prescription, you should let your doctor know what you’re taking. He or she can check that you’ve got the right medication for your symptoms, and check on side effects.

Older antihistamines such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine) and Chlor-Trimeton (chlorpheniramine) can make you drowsy. The newer antihistamine Zyrtec (cetirizine) may also cause drowsiness. Antihistamines such as Allegra (fexofenadine) and Claritin (loratadine) do not usually make you drowsy.

Decongestants can cause nervousness, sleeplessness, increased heart rate and increased blood pressure. Don’t use decongestant nasal sprays for more than three days in a row as they may worsen your nasal congestion and swelling, and can be habit forming. Always check the drug label for more information about side effects and how a drug may interact with other medications you may already be using.

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).

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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!

Fighting the Winter Blahs

Seasonal blahs generally means less interaction with others or isolation – and neither are good for our health. Several research studies have shown a strong correlation between social interaction and health and well-being among adults, and have suggested that social isolation may have significant adverse effects, especially for older adults. For example, study results indicate that:

  • Social relationships are consistently associated with biomarkers of health. Positive indicators of social well-being may be associated with lower levels of interleukin-6 in otherwise healthy people. Interleukin-6 is an inflammatory factor implicated in age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer.
  • Caring for children and grandchildren makes us healthier and more active. We experience a strong emotional bond that often leads to a more active lifestyle, healthier meals and more activities. If someone doesn’t have anyone to care for, though, it’s important to visit with friends or seek out opportunities to interact with others as often as possible.
  • Social isolation constitutes a major risk factor for morbidity and mortality, especially in older adults.
  • Loneliness may have a physical as well as an emotional impact. For example, people who are lonely frequently have elevated systolic blood pressure.
  • Loneliness is a unique risk factor for symptoms of depression, and loneliness and depression have a synergistic adverse effect on well-being, especially in middle-aged and older adults.

Regardless of the season, it’s always beneficial to try and continue our normal routines to help feel like we’re still in control. We can consciously try to not over-eat and make time for exercise and rest. Additionally, personal outreach, especially socializing and connecting with old friends and associates, is important for our emotional health. Today’s electronic world often allows us instantaneous messaging and the ability to connect with friends and family far away, but virtual communication through email and tools like Facebook and Twitter can’t replace the value of face-to-face interactions. While digital outreach is valuable and sometimes our easiest option, the Internet tends to act as a buffer between us and real intimacy.

Relationships and effective communication are built on eye contact, touch, feedback and unspoken physical communication. When possible, make the effort to visit friends and neighbors, attend parties and gatherings, contribute personal time through charitable efforts and catch up with people in person. Pursuing hobbies and activities that get us out of the house and moving are important, too. Yoga, art classes, dance, exercise, reading groups, quilting circles, bowling and even scrapbooking can get us out of the house and keep us more active.

Here are a few other tips to help keep us healthier during the remaining cooler months:

  • Get outside. Even if it is gray and cloudy, the effects of daylight are beneficial. In addition to more exposure to daylight, fresh air is stimulating, and walking outdoors revitalizes us.
  • Balanced nutrition. A well-balanced, nutritious diet will provide more energy and help quell carb cravings. Comfort food tastes good and it may make us feel better for the short-term, but a balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins and whole grains will help keep our weight in check and make us feel better in the long run.
  • Take vitamins or supplements. Getting our recommended daily amounts of vitamins and minerals can help improve our energy, particularly if we are deficient in key nutrients. There are a variety of seasonal supplements available, but check with a physician or naturopath before taking mega-doses or herbal formulations. A multi-vitamin and mineral supplement may be all we need.
  • Move our body. Regardless of the time of year, regular exercise is essential for overall health. Even if the weather has us mostly relegated to the indoors, we can still head to our local gym or exercise in the comfort of our home. Getting our body moving will help battle winter weight gain, boost endorphins, and may even help us sleep more soundly. If dressed for the weather, walks and hikes outdoors are invigorating and good for us physically and mentally. And yoga, meditation and classes that promote group stretching and exercise are good for us physically and socially.
  • Prioritize social activities. Stay connected to a social network. Getting out of the house and doing enjoyable things with friends and family can do wonders for cheering us up. Go to a movie or make a dinner date. Plan regular social activities and, weather permitting, get outdoors for a group hike, skiing or other activity.
  • Consider getting help. If stress and depression are still interfering with your daily functioning, seek professional help. Antidepressants and certain types of psychotherapy have proven effective in helping people cope with seasonal mood changes.

The important thing is to keep moving, interact with others and to take control of our bodies and minds so the “winter blues” don’t take control of us!

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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!

The History of Valentine’s Day

Although February 14th may be welcomed by many and reviled by others, it’s hard to ignore.  In fact, it is hard to imagine another day in the year that is simultaneously revered and dreaded . . . and so misunderstood! Sure, we love the chocolate and flowers, romantic dinners and Hallmark missives. There also are plenty of closeted treasure chests filled with children’s painted hand prints and hand-drawn cards. But why does Valentine’s Day actually exist, other than as a blessing for retail stores and our economy?

The history of Valentine’s Day — and the story of its patron saint — is shrouded in mystery. February has long been celebrated as a month of romance, and St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition.

The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine allegedly defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When his actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.

Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl –possibly his jailor’s daughter — who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today.

Some historians claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to upstage the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.

At the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance.

Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written valentines didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. And the expression, “wearing your heart on your sleeve” was because young men of that era would pin a piece of paper on their clothes with the name of a woman they were interested in, and parade outdoors.

In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology.

Americans began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as “scrap.” Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year. Women purchase approximately 85 percent of all valentines.

Why chocolate?

In the 1840s, Richard Cadbury, descendant of a British chocolate manufacturing family, was responsible for sales at a crucial point in his company’s history. Cadbury had recently improved its chocolate-making technique to extract pure cocoa butter from whole beans, producing a more palatable drinking chocolate than most Britons had ever tasted. This process resulted in an excess amount of cocoa butter, which Cadbury used to produce many more varieties of what was then called “eating chocolate.” Cadbury recognized a great marketing opportunity for the new chocolates and started selling them in beautifully decorated boxes that he himself designed.

While Richard Cadbury didn’t actually patent the heart-shaped box, it’s widely believed that he was the first to produce one. Cadbury marketed the boxes as having a dual purpose: When the chocolates had all been eaten, the box itself was so pretty that it could be used again and again to store mementos, from locks of hair to love letters. The boxes grew increasingly elaborate until the outbreak of World War II, when sugar was rationed and Valentine’s Day celebrations were scaled down. But Victorian-era Cadbury boxes still exist, and many are treasured family heirlooms or valuable items prized by collectors.

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Resistance is not futile: Negating antibiotic myths

We all can relate to the telltale sounds of winter:  Fresh snow crunching under our feet, shovels sliding along sidewalks, ice scrapers chipping at frozen windshields  . . . and lots and lots of coughing and sneezing! It’s flu, ear, sinus and throat infection season in America, and decongestants, cough medicine and throat lozenges are jumping off the shelves as we also line up at the pharmacy to get our antibiotics.

With kids back in school, poor hand-washing habits, and everyone sneezing and snorting around us, our natural immunities to bacterial and viral infections are taxed, leaving us more likely to contract a variety of illnesses. But it’s important to know the difference between bacterial and viral maladies, and the best ways to fight those symptoms once we’re sick.

Bacteria are single-celled organisms usually found all over the inside and outside of our bodies, except in the blood and spinal fluid. Many bacteria are not harmful. In fact, some are actually beneficial. However, disease-causing bacteria trigger illnesses, such as strep throat and some ear infections. Viruses are even smaller than bacteria. A virus cannot survive outside the body’s cells. It causes illnesses by invading healthy cells and reproducing.

Antibiotics are drugs that fight infections caused by bacteria. After the first use of antibiotics in the 1940s, they transformed medical care and dramatically reduced illness and death from infectious diseases. The term “antibiotic” originally referred to a natural compound produced by a fungus or another microorganism that kills bacteria which cause disease in humans or animals.

Antibiotics are our chosen line of offense against many types of infections, but they don’t work against all. For example, we should not treat viral infections such as colds, the flu, sore throats (unless caused by strep), most coughs, and some ear infections with antibiotics. Although antibiotics have many beneficial effects, their use has contributed to the problem of antibiotic resistance.

Antibiotic resistance is nothing to sneeze at

Antibiotic resistance is a quickly growing, extremely dangerous problem. World health leaders have described antibiotic-resistant bacteria as “nightmare bacteria” that pose a catastrophic threat to people in every country in the world. Each year in the United States, at least two million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. Many more people die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection.

Antibiotic resistance is the ability of bacteria or other microbes to resist the effects of an antibiotic. When bacteria are exposed to antibiotics, they start learning how to outsmart the drugs. This process occurs in bacteria found in humans, animals, and the environment. Resistant bacteria can multiply and spread easily and quickly, causing severe infections. They can also share genetic information with other bacteria, making the other bacteria resistant as well. Each time bacteria learn to outsmart an antibiotic, treatment options are more limited, and these infections pose a greater risk to human health. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, schoolmates and co-workers, threatening the community with a new strain of infectious disease that is more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat.

Separating myth from truth

A report from the World Health Organization (WHO) released in late 2015 reports that 64 percent of people surveyed say they know antibiotic resistance is a problem, but they are less aware of how it affects them and what they can do about it. To reach these findings, the WHO surveyed 10,000 people in 12 different countries. They found that misunderstandings of antibiotic resistance were prevalent worldwide. Here are some common misconceptions that showed up in the survey results:

  • You don’t have to take all the antibiotics you’re prescribed. Among people surveyed, 32 percent said they thought you should stop taking antibiotics when you feel better, instead of completing the prescribed treatment plan. However the truth is that taking the full dose over the prescribed time frame is what’s recommended. Not doing so means an infection might not be fully treated, and can spur antibiotic resistance.
  • Antibiotic resistance means the body no longer responds to drugs. The WHO reports that 76 percent of people surveyed said antibiotic resistance is what happens when the body becomes resistant to antibiotics, when in fact it is the bacteria that becomes resistant and spreads illness.
  • Only people who use antibiotics regularly are at a risk for antibiotic resistance. Forty-four percent of people thought this was true, but in actuality, as the WHO points out, anyone can get an infection that’s resistant to antibiotics.
  • Antibiotics can be used to treat colds and flu. We can’t use antibiotics to treat the cold or flu. These are caused by viruses, and antibiotics are used to treat bacteria. Taking antibiotics when we don’t need them can lead to resistance problems. Despite that, 64 percent of people in the survey thought you could use them for colds or the flu.
  • There’s nothing we can do to lower our risk. There are things that both the medical community and patients can do to lower the risk antibiotic-resistance. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says people should take their antibiotics exactly as the doctor prescribes them, should not share or use leftover antibiotics, should not ask for antibiotics if the doctor doesn’t think they’re necessary and should prevent infection by practicing good hygiene and getting vaccines.

So the next time you or someone you care for is sick, remember that taking antibiotics for viral infection such as colds, flu, most sore throats, bronchitis, and many sinus or ear infections will NOT cure the infection; will not keep other people from getting sick; will not help you, your partner or your child feel better; and may cause unnecessary and harmful side effects. Rest, fluids, and over-the-counter products may be your or your child’s best treatment option against viral infections.

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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!

Giving is receiving

There’s no question that when we give to others – whether it’s our time, charitable donations, or gifts – we feel good. Sometimes it’s anticipation and joy as we watch someone open his or her gift, or it can be pride or the sense of self-satisfaction we experience when supporting a charity, organization or cause we believe is important. Whatever our reason for giving to others, it feels good – and it’s good for us!

Beyond anecdotal evidence and the hard to measure “warm fuzzy feelings” we derive from acts of kindness and sharing, medical research indicates that giving is good for the giver’s physical and mental health. Giving reduces stress, which can lower blood pressure. Other health benefits associated with giving include increased self-esteem, reduced depression, and increased happiness – all gifts that can result in a longer, healthier life.

According to a 2006 study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, people who gave social support to others had lower blood pressure than people who didn’t. Supportive interaction with others also helped people recover from coronary-related events. The same study also found that people who gave their time to help others through community and organizational involvement had greater self-esteem, less depression and lower stress levels than those who didn’t.

In another 2006 study, researchers from the National Institutes of Health studied the functional MRIs of subjects who gave to various charities. They found that giving stimulates the mesolimbic pathway, which is the reward center in the brain, releasing endorphins and creating what is known as the “helper’s high.” That reaction, like other “feel-good” chemical catalysts, also is addictive – but it’s an addiction that’s good for us!

Overall, studies prove that giving affects us biologically, activating regions in the brain associated with pleasure, connection with other people and trust. According to a 1999 University of California, Berkeley, study, people who were 55 and older who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44 percent less likely to die over a five-year period than those who didn’t volunteer – even accounting for many other factors including age, exercise, general health and negative habits like smoking. And in a 2003 University of Michigan study, a researcher found similar numbers in studying elderly people who gave help to friends, relatives and neighbors – or who gave emotional support to their spouses – versus those who didn’t.

Whether we’re on the giving or receiving end of a gift, that gift can elicit feelings of gratitude – and research has found that gratitude is integral to happiness, health, and social bonds. And if that isn’t enough to further motivate us, when we give, we’re more likely to get back: Studies suggest that when we give to others, our generosity is likely to be rewarded by others down the line – sometimes by the person we gave to, sometimes by someone else. Additionally, the organizations we support help others, who then “pay it forward.”  These exchanges promote a sense of trust and cooperation that strengthen our ties, and research has shown that having positive social interactions also is central to good mental and physical health.

So when it comes to giving, there’s no apparent “down side.” Give often and give generously – whether time, a helping hand or charitable donations – and reap the many interpersonal and health rewards that come from “doing good” and from sharing.

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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!

Staying dry isn’t always the best solution

It’s getting cold out there, and we know what that means: Dress in layers, dig into closets and drawers for our gloves and hats, and welcome back chapped lips, dry, itchy skin, hang nails, rashes and a worsening of skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis. Beyond plunging thermometers, the main culprit we’re fighting is lack of moisture. In late fall and winter, the humidity in the outside air drops, and — thanks to indoor heating — we’re dried out by warm air in our house, office, school or workplace.

During flu and cold season, we’re also washing our hands more often than ever, which saps the natural oils in our skin, leaving hands, feet and other body parts dehydrated until they crack, peel and bleed. The skin barrier is a mix of proteins, lipids and oils. It protects our skin, and how good a job it does is largely genetic, but also a measure of environmental conditions. If we have a weak barrier, we’re more prone to symptoms of sensitive skin such as itching, inflammation and eczema. Our hands are also more likely to become very dry in winter if they’re constantly exposed to cold air, water, extreme heat or other environmental factors.

November is National Healthy Skin Month. Dry skin occurs when skin doesn’t retain sufficient moisture — for example, because of frequent bathing, use of harsh soaps, aging, or certain medical conditions. Wintertime poses a special problem because humidity is low both outdoors and indoors, and the water content of the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin) tends to reflect the level of humidity around it. Fortunately, there are many simple and inexpensive things we can do to relieve winter dry skin, also known as winter itch.

Skin moisturizers, which rehydrate the epidermis and seal in the moisture, are the first step in combating dry skin. In general, the thicker and greasier a moisturizer, the more effective it will be. Some of the most effective (and least expensive) are petroleum jelly and moisturizing oils (such as mineral oil), which prevent water loss without clogging pores. Because they contain no water, they’re best used while the skin is still damp from bathing, to seal in the moisture. Other moisturizers contain water as well as oil, in varying proportions. These are less greasy and may be more cosmetically appealing than petroleum jelly or oils.

Dry skin becomes much more common with age — at least 75 percent of people over age 64 have dry skin. Often it’s the cumulative effect of sun exposure; sun damage results in thinner skin that doesn’t retain moisture. The production of natural oils in the skin also slows with age; in women, this may be partly a result of the postmenopausal drop in hormones that stimulate oil and sweat glands. The most vulnerable areas are those that have fewer sebaceous (or oil) glands, such as the arms, legs, hands, and middle of the upper back.

Here are some ways to combat dry skin that are effective if practiced consistently:

  • Use a humidifier in the cold-weather months. Set it to around 60 percent, a level that should be sufficient to replenish the top layer of the epidermis.
  • Limit yourself to one 5- to 10-minute bath or shower daily. Use lukewarm water rather than hot water, which can wash away natural oils.
  • Minimize the use of soaps — replace them with super-fatted, fragrance-free soaps, whether bar or liquid, for cleansing, and moisturizing preparations such as Dove, Olay, and Basis. Also consider soap-free cleansers like Cetaphil, Oilatum-AD, and Aquanil.
  • To reduce the risk of trauma to the skin, avoid bath sponges, scrub brushes, and washcloths.
  • Apply moisturizer immediately after bathing or after washing hands. This helps plug the spaces between our skin cells and seal in moisture while our skin is still damp.
  • Try not to scratch! Most of the time, a moisturizer can control the itch. Also use a cold pack or compress to relieve itchy spots.
  • Use sunscreen in the winter as well as in the summer to prevent photo-aging.
  • When shaving, use a shaving cream or gel and leave it on the skin for several minutes before starting.
  • Wear gloves and hats when you venture outdoors, and latex or rubber gloves when you wash dishes and clothes.
  • Stay hydrated – no matter the season, you need to drink plenty of water, and be careful about caffeine and alcohol products, which dry you out.

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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!

Can the healthy stuff

The fall harvest offers a bounty of delicious and hearty native fruit and vegetables. With only a few weeks left before the first frost, apples, pears, broccoli and Brussels sprouts are fresh at the farm, in the market or in our gardens. Not only are these domestic treats tasty, but they can help us feel better, become healthier and may protect against heart disease and stroke.

Colorful fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals that have different disease-fighting elements. These compounds may be important in reducing the risk of many conditions. The American Heart Association recommends at least four to five servings per day of fruits and vegetables, based on a 2,000-calorie diet, as part of a healthy lifestyle that can lower our risk for many diseases.

Now’s the time to fill up on all things orange, which are nutrient-rich and high in beta-carotene, a potent carotenoid that’s converted to vitamin A in the body. These compounds are associated with helping to protect the eyes, prevent macular degeneration and cataracts, diminish inflammatory conditions such as asthma and arthritis and even possibly reduce the risk of many cancers.

It’s also easy to find sweet potatoes and pumpkins, carrots and winter squash in local markets.  Other seasonal fruits and vegetables including persimmons and citrus, cantaloupe, tangerines and clementines are rich in vitamin C. This important nutrient helps build strong bones, skin, blood vessels, muscle and cartilage. Vitamin C also aids in the absorption of iron. Rich in fiber, these foods, like apples, help to make us feel full and aid in digestion.

Alas, the saddest part of autumn – besides the shorter days and imminent cold weather – is the end to fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables. Frozen produce can offer many of the same nutritional benefits when items are picked at their nutritional prime, and particularly if you watch for excess sodium, especially with canned goods. But wouldn’t it be nice if you could keep these garden treats for months without them spoiling?

Preserving your own

A viable and popular alternative to store-bought processed foods is preserving fruits and vegetables from your garden or local markets for consumption later in the year or throughout the winter. There are many common, safe food-preservation methods you can practice at home, but it’s important to know what you’re doing and to practice safe canning, pickling, freezing and drying methods.

  • Canningis the process in which foods are placed in jars or cans and heated to a temperature that destroys microorganisms and inactivates enzymes. This heating and subsequent cooling forms a vacuum seal. The vacuum seal prevents other microorganisms from decontaminating the food within the jar or can. Acidic foods such as fruits and tomatoes can be processed or “canned” in boiling water (also called the “water-bath method”), while low-acid vegetables and meats must be processed in a pressure canner at 240°F (10 pounds of pressure at sea level).
  • There are many less safe canning methods that people use, from no processing at all (filling the jars and seal, called “open kettle” canning) to oven canning, microwave canning and even using the dishwasher.  Click here fora description of these unsafe methods, why they are dangerous and links to references about them.
  • Picklingis another form of canning. Pickled products have an increased acidity that makes it difficult for most bacteria to grow. The amount of acid present is very important to the safety of the product. Pickled products are also heated in jars at boiling temperatures to destroy any other microorganisms present, and form a vacuum in the jar.
  • Jams and Jellieshave a high sugar content. The sugar binds with the liquid present making it difficult for microorganisms to grow. To prevent surface contamination after the product is made and possible yeast or mold growth, these should be canned, frozen, or refrigerated.
  • Freezingreduces the temperature of the food so that microorganisms cannot grow, however many will survive. Enzyme activity is slowed down, but not stopped during freezing.
  • Drying removes most of the moisture from foods. As a result, microorganisms cannot grow and enzyme action is slowed down. Dried foods should be stored in airtight containers to prevent moisture from rehydrating the products and allowing microbial growth.

Canning guidelines were revised in 1989 following extensive research. Canning instructions printed before 1989 may be unsafe. Here are some of the newer recommendations you should be using, based on USDA  recommendations:

  • Bottled lemon juice should be added to all canned tomatoes.
  • Jellies, jams, and preserves should be processed in a boiling water bath.
  • Pickles and pickled products should be processed in a boiling water bath.
  • The pressure for your pressure canner and the time for processing in a boiling water bath should be adjusted according to your local altitude.

For more information and general descriptions of common, safe home food preservation methods, and a glossary of terms, recipes and directions, visit http://www.pickyourown.org. Click here for a glossary of terms used in home preserving.

And click here for why you should use a canner and how to choose one.

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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!