Here Come the Germs!

24 09 2013

I love my kids. I do. But, may I just say, entre nous, that my heartbeat slows and I’m immersed in a narcotic sense of freedom when they toddle off to school each September.

That euphoric bliss lasts about two weeks. Maybe. Then come the colds, the aches, the lethargy, the sniffles, the who-knows-what.

Does your family experience the same thing? Here’s what’s going on:

  • In the US, kids under 17 years of age experience over 50 million colds each year. M-m-million!
  • Kids miss almost 22 million (there’s that “m” word again) days of school due to colds.
  • Diarrhea is no slouch when it comes to affecting the health of our kids—it’s a big contributor to missed school days.
  • Bacteria and viruses can survive on desktops, doorknobs, walls, water spigots, cafeteria trays, shoes, backpacks, purses, and other surfaces for minutes or even hours. A few even longer, depending on the environment. The germs lurk on surfaces, waiting for unsuspecting hands to slide by and pick them up.
  • Some kids and teachers don’t cover their coughs and sneezes, and they don’t clean their hands when it’s important to do so. Depending on the germ, it may float in the air and wait to be inhaled, or drop on a surface and wait to be picked up, or transfer from germy hands to surfaces or the waiting hands of others.

What can we do? We can’t completely protect our kids from the germs in the world (and there’s no way I’m homeschooling), so we teach them how to protect themselves and live with the fact that they’re occasionally going to pick up germs. Picking up germs is not a bad thing. That exposure helps strengthen the immune system and does other good things for the body that are best left to another blog post.

To keep illness down to a manageable level, share these tips with your family:

  • Wash hands with soap and water after coughing, sneezing, playing inside or outside, going to the bathroom, or touching animals, and before preparing or eating food and at any time that the hands look dirty. And, wash those hands as soon as you come home from school or, well, anywhere.
  • Use hand sanitizer in place of soap and water if no soap/water is available, but soap and water are preferred. Remember that hand sanitizer kills many germs, but only while it’s being rubbed onto the hands. Once it’s dry and the hand touches something germy even two seconds later, germs will live on the hands again.
  • Cough and sneeze into the crook of the elbow. Coughing and sneezing into tissues is OK, but not ideal. The tissues are thin and the germs blast right through onto the hands, requiring an immediate hand cleaning. Plus, the germs are more likely to escape the tissue and float around waiting to be inhaled, or drop onto surfaces, waiting to be touched.
  • Don’t share with others anything your mouth touches. This means don’t share forks, spoons, water bottles, food, drinking glasses, straws, lipstick or any other makeup, come to think of it, and don’t use anything that’s touched another person’s mouth, such as their pen or pencil or any item already listed. This is not a complete list, just one to get you thinking about how germs can be passed from one person to another.
  • Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth, as these are entryways for germs.
  • Walk around your home with a disinfecting wipe and clean doorknobs (interior and exterior), light switches and the wall area around them if the wall surface will hold up to the moisture, keyboards, remote controls—anything around the house that gets touched a lot.
  • Call your provider and your child’s provider and make sure the entire family is up-to-date on immunizations.

Share your tips in the comment section. Let’s try to have a healthy school year!


By Trish Parnell



Ask Emily

29 03 2012

Why does our hair thin out as we age? My aunt lost hair in unexpected places as she closed in on her 80th year.

The reasons for hair thinning as we age range from benign but perhaps unwanted processes to serious disease. One reason your hair may seem thinner as you get older is that each individual hair is itself literally thinner because the hair follicle narrows with age. The result is hair with less volume than you may have had before, which seems like thinning. Because thinner also means “breaks more easily,” you may see more hair in your hairbrush or after a shower, but that doesn’t mean your hair is actually falling out.

If your hair is really falling out, the usual cause is an inherited susceptibility to androgens. The official name is androgenetic alopecia (“androgenetic” refers to an inherited susceptibility to androgenic hormones and “alopecia” means hair loss). Most people are aware that men develop this form of hair loss, which we know of more colloquially as “male pattern baldness.” Men and women exhibit different patterns of baldness when these androgens kick in with age, and women tend to lose their hair over the front part of the scalp and have thinning all over. This loss in women also may be related to changes at menopause, and some research suggests that estrogen decline in addition to androgen activity could be involved. A recent study also found that malfunctions in the source cells for hair follicles may also be part of the pathway that leads to androgenetic alopecia.

While the loss itself is not harmful, the appearance that results can be particularly difficult for women, as most people don’t expect it to happen in women, in spite of how common it is. Treatments for androgenetic alopecia in women include use of compounds that block androgens or a compound called minoxidil that circumvents androgen activity and promotes hair growth.

While these common causes of hair thinning are relatively benign in health terms, thinning can also signal something more dire. One common health-related cause of hair loss is thyroid dysfunction. Emotional or physical stress, such as childbirth, major surgery, or severe infection can also elicit a widespread loss of hair weeks or even months after the episode occurs. The loss eventually slows.

Some infectious diseases can cause hair loss, including syphilis, while autoimmune diseases like lupus can also be to blame, although some forms of lupus and associated hair loss may actually improve with age and after menopause. In elderly women, causes of hair loss include pulling out the hair themselves in some cases, known as trichotillomania. Another potential cause of hair loss is giant cell arteritis, which is inflammation of the arteries in the upper body, head, and neck. If a person whose hair is thinning also has been diagnosed with cancer, any hair loss should be closely investigated for the possibility that the cancer has metastasized or migrated to the scalp.

The bottom line with hair loss is that any hair loss that is sudden, occurs in an odd pattern, or that you simply find worrisome justifies a call to a medical professional. As one scientific abstract noted, hair loss particularly in postmenopausal women “warrants close inspection.”

Do you have a question for Emily? Send it to:

By Emily Willingham

Image courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons

Sssstress? We Don’t Got no Stinkin Stress!

6 06 2011

With twitching eye and slightly trembling fingers, I search online for the signs and symptoms (and treatment) of stress.

What exactly is stress? Most of us use the term, but it sounds like a catchall. There is a definition: Stress is what happens when forces from the outside affect us. When we feel stress, we release neurochemicals and hormones, which allow us to act (fight or flight).  If we don’t act, those hormones and chemicals can cause harm to the body.

Is stress an infectious disease? We don’t write much about topics that aren’t related to our mission, but come on, don’t you think some people are stress versions of Typhoid Mary?  Don’t we all have a friend or co-worker who zaps our stress button, thereby infecting us with stress?

And stress does impact our health. The Mayo Clinic breaks it down for us, explaining that stress can alter our immune system response and suppress the digestive and reproductive systems, as well as make us fat and depressed. There’s actually a long list of how stress can negatively affect us, but I’m too stressed to read it.

Research suggests there’s no magic pill that can prevent us from experiencing stress, but doing whatever relaxes you is the uninspiring prescription for relief.

It’s lame, but it does help.  However, what about getting stressed in the first place? What can we worrywarts do about that? Got any ideas?

What do you do to relieve stress?