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Monthly Archives: March 2017

A Deadly Reason to Avoid Deer Ticks

Move over, Lyme disease: Another tick-borne illness is on the rise in various parts of the country, and this one can kill.

Known as babesiosis, the disease is caused by a microscopic parasite that attacks blood cells, causing flu-like symptoms that can make it difficult to accurately diagnose. Like Lyme disease, which is caused by bacteria, babesia microti parasites are carried by deer ticks.

First documented in Massachusetts in 1969, the once-obscure babesiosis has surfaced as a significant public health threat in parts of the Northeast and Upper Midwest over the last several years. A recent study in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, revealed that between 2001 and 2008 cases climbed from six to 119 in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley — a 20-fold regional increase.

And many cases may be escaping detection, experts say.

“I think it’s underreported. One of the reasons we’re seeing more about it is because people are becoming more aware,” said Dr. Peter Krause, a babesiosis researcher and senior research scientist at the Yale University School of Public Health. “The theory is that it’s spreading from east to west, as if you were dropping a pebble in a pond and it spread outward geographically.”

About 1,000 cases are reported annually in affected locales, Krause said, but many people with babesiosis have no symptoms and never know they’re harboring the parasite. For others, symptoms can include high fever, severe headache, fatigue, chills, and muscle aches and pains. It is treated with antimicrobial drugs, such as antibiotics.

People with compromised immune systems — including the elderly and those with cancer, HIV or no spleens — are especially at risk of potentially deadly complications such as organ failure. Between 10 percent and 20 percent of patients in those populations die as a result, Krause said.

The more prolific Lyme disease causes similar symptoms in early stage cases but is easier to diagnose by its telltale bullseye rash, said Dr. Barbara Herwaldt, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC who specializes in parasitic conditions.

Deer are pivotal to the life cycle of ticks carrying the babesia microti parasite by serving as a blood meal, shelter and a place to mate, Krause said. Ticks also feed on birds, who serve as carriers for Lyme disease, which affects the entire continental United States. Fortunately for humans, birds don’t carry babesia microti.

Krause noted that ticks need a moist climate to thrive, so dry states such as Arizona are not likely to see babesiosis cases caused by tick bites. But the disease can potentially spread to all states in an even sneakier way — through the blood supply.

Although a blood screening test is in trials, Krause said, donors are currently only asked if they have had babesiosis, and those who harbored it but never showed symptoms can pass it through their donated blood. And because most blood recipients are already physically compromised, babesiosis has about a 30 percent mortality rate in that group, he said.

“Getting babesiosis through the blood supply is a rare event and people shouldn’t panic,” he said. “I don’t think it will reach a crisis level, but it’s still a concern.”

To help prevent babesiosis, the CDC advises people with compromised immune systems or other vulnerabilities to avoid tick-infested wooded areas, particularly during warm months. The agency also recommends that everyone walk in the middle of trails and avoid bushy areas with lots of leaves or tall grasses and to use the repellent DEET and pre-treat clothes with an insect repellent containing permethrin before going outdoors.

The CDC also recommends doing full-body checks and showering within a few hours of being in the woods, as well as tossing used clothes in the dryer to kill any ticks that might be hiding there.

The authors of the study also advised clinicians to consider babesiosis in patients who have been exposed to ticks or received blood products and who show up for treatment with a fever and anemia resulting from the destruction of red blood cells.

7 Simple Ways to Cut Your Cell Phone Cancer Risk

Does the World Health Organization’s statement that cell phones may cause cancerhave you thinking twice about making that phone call?

Of course it’s alarming to think that something that’s become such a can’t-live-without can be linked to brain cancer, but there’s a lot even the most cell phone-addicted people can do to minimize health risks.

Any potential links to cancer stem from the low levels of radiation cell phones emit. Lower your exposure to the radiation, and you’ll reduce the potential links to cancer or other health problems:

  1. Use a headset. Sounds obvious, but headsets emit much less radiation than cell phones do, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and they keep your cell phone away from your head. The farther away you are from a source of radiation, the less damage it can do.
  2. Text when you can. Your constantly texting teens are onto something: Cell phones use less energy (and emit less radiation) when you text than when you talk, says the EWG. Texting also keeps the radiation source farther away from your brain.
  3. Use cell phones for FYI-only calls. Don’t use your cell phone for that long overdue, hour-long catch-up with your sister. Keep calls as short as possible —Do you need me to get the dry cleaning, honey? — and switch to a landline if they’re veering off into chitchat territory.
  4. Watch the bars. Can you hear me now? If you’re struggling to maintain a connection, ditch the call and wait until you have better service. When your phone has fewer signal bars, it has to work harder (and, therefore, emit more radiation) to connect.
  5. Keep the phone away from your ear when you can. EMF-Health.comrecommends waiting for the call to connect before you bring the phone to your ear, which minimizes radiation exposure. And when you talk, tilt the phone away from your ear and bring it in close when you’re listening. That’s because the radiation levels are “significantly less when a cell phone is receiving signals than when it is transmitting,” Lin Zhong, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University in Houston, told The New York Times.
  6. Don’t make calls in elevators or cars. You already it’s dangerous to talk and drive; EMF-Health.com says that cell phones use more power to establish a connection in enclosed metal spaces like cars and elevators.
  7. Make sure your kids use the landline. It seems like even toddlers are using cell phones today, but experts say kids are the most vulnerable to potential radiation dangers. The EWG says children’s brains absorb twice as much cell phone radiation as adults. According to The New York Times, health authorities in Britain, France, Germany, and Russia all have warnings against letting children use cell phones.

7 Foolish Health Rumors You Should Ignore

Urban legends and health myths are certainly nothing new — we’re pretty sure even our Neanderthal ancestors passed some version of them around their cave fires. But the Internet has certainly helped outdated advice die hard, so it’s no wonder these fake facts keep popping up in our inboxes. We picked our favorites from such myth-busting sites as Snopes, the authors of Don’t Swallow Your Gum!: Myths, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies About Your Body and Health, and more. Here’s why you should stop falling for these, once and for all:

Chewing gum takes seven years to pass through your digestive tract.

The truth: Gum addicts can relax. Although your body can’t digest chewing gum, it doesn’t just sit in your stomach, according to Snopes.com. You eliminate it when you go to the bathroom just like other food you haven’t digested.

Plucking a gray hair causes two to grow back.

The truth: It’s fine to tweeze that errant hair. Genetics plays a key role in when you go gray, regardless of how often you pluck. It can take six months from the time a hair falls out until it grows back long enough for you to notice it; during that time, you’ll automatically see more gray hair as part of the aging process, explains Snopes.com.

Antiperspirant deodorants cause breast cancer.

The truth: Going au naturel won’t protect your breasts from cancer. This mythprobably came about because some antiperspirants contain aluminum, which can show up as a false-positive finding on a mammogram. All this means is you should skip the white stuff before a breast cancer screening. Though concerns have been raised about parabens in deodorant raising estrogen levels — and thus possibly increasing cancer risk — there’s never been any conclusive evidence to prove a link, according to the National Cancer Institute and FDA.

Cats can steal the air from a baby’s mouth.

The truth: There’s no need to send Fluffy away when baby moves in. This myth dates back hundreds of years to an era when cats were associated with evil spirits and witchcraft, but KidsHealth.org notes that it’s anatomically impossible for a cat or other animal to suffocate a baby by sealing the infant’s mouth with its own. Still, it’s a good idea to supervise pets around babies and small children — for the kitty’s safety just as much as the child’s.

Mountain Dew can shrink a man’s testicles.

The truth: Mountain Dew-drinking guys everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief. The gist of this ridiculous rumor, according to Snopes.com, is that drinking Mountain Dew can lower a man’s sperm count or cause his penis to shrink. The alleged culprit is food coloring Yellow No. 5, and the myth that it has a harmful effect on the male reproductive system is unfounded, the site says.

You can catch a cold from being outside too long.

The truth: It’s actually a good idea to let your kids spend plenty of time outdoors. “Going outside — with or without a wet head — is one of the best things you can do toprevent catching a cold,” D.J. Verret, MD, a Dallas otolaryngologist, toldWomansDay.com. “Colds are caused by viruses or bacteria, which are more often spread in the winter because of close contact from everyone being indoors.” So spending time al fresco can actually make you less likely to catch a cold.

Cracking your knuckles causes arthritis.

Truth: The sound can be extremely grating, but this uncouth habit won’t harm your joints. Researchers found no difference in instances of arthritis when they compared a group of longtime knuckle crackers with those who left their hands alone, according to Prevention.com. However, the study did find that people who cracked their knuckles had weaker grips and more hand swelling — good reasons to kick the habit.

The Truth About Everyday Radiation Exposure

Japan’s ongoing nuclear crisis understandably has people around the world worried about radiation exposure and the potential health risks it may pose. According to the latest reports, radiation from Japan was detected in Southern California late this week, but experts are quick to point out that the levels are far from dangerous. The readings were “about a billion times beneath levels that would be health threatening,” a diplomat with access to United Nations’ radiation tracking told the Associated Press.

Nor is it unexpected. “Whenever radioactive particles get in the atmosphere, they have the potential to spread around the world,” says James Thrall, MD, president of the American College of Radiology. “But they get diluted as they travel, so they’re unlikely to pose any real health problem.”

In fact, we’re probably exposed to significantly more radiation every day than the miniscule fallout arriving from Japan. Here’s a quick tutorial on radiation to put our collective anxiety in perspective:

What Is Radiation?

Radiation is a form of energy in waves. It exists on a spectrum, with low-frequency radiation (from radio waves and microwaves) on the low end and high-frequency radiation (from gamma rays and x-rays) on the high end. All radiation affects the cells in our bodies to some extent, but the lower the frequency of the waves and the lower the exposure, the less dangerous it is.

To understand the risks of high-frequency radiation — the kind we’re talking about in this article — think back to high school physics: These waves have enough energy to knock electrons off molecules, which can cause damage to cell DNA that can ultimately lead to cancer.

How Are We Exposed to Radiation?

We encounter radiation each day from a variety of sources. The average American is exposed to about 6 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation annually, according to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC). Half of this typically comes from background radiation that occurs naturally in the environment, and half comes from medical tests, such as X-rays, mammograms, and CT scans.

According to Kelly Classic, MS, spokesperson for the Health Physics Society, sources of environmental radiation include:

  • Radioactive compounds in soil and building materials like concrete, brick, and stone
  • Radiation from outer space that your encounter when you fly on airplanes or visit high-altitude places
  • The mineral potassium in your own body (a small fraction of potassium, which our bodies need to function, is radioactive)
  • Radon gas in the home, which accounts for about 2 mSv of exposure each year, and is the largest contributor of background radiation

Finally, there’s the kind of radiation released during nuclear reactions, such as what’s disseminating from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Here’s a look at various sources of radiation exposure (dose of radiation in millisieverts (mSv)), according to data from the Health Physics Society and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). By way of comparison, a single dose of radiation below 0.01 mSv is considered negligible by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.

  • Banana: 0.0001
  • Dental X-ray: 0.005
  • Living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant: 0.01 (per year)
  • A flight from New York to Los Angeles: 0.04
  • Smoking 1 ½ packs of cigarettes: 0.08
  • Chest X-ray: 0.1
  • Living at sea level: 0.25 (per year)
  • Mammogram: 0.3
  • Living in Denver: 0.5 (per year)
  • Abdominal CT scan: 14
  • Measures between reactors No. 3 and No. 4 during the March 15 explosion at the Fukushima plant: As high as 400 per hour

What Level of Radiation Exposure Is Safe?

It’s well-established that exposure to large amounts of radiation at once can cause acute sickness and even cancer. (A 1,000 mSv-dose can trigger acute radiation sickness, causing symptoms such as nausea and vomiting; 3,000 mSV can be lethal, according to Thrall.)

But there’s no good data on the long-term risks of the low levels of radiation to which we’re continually exposed.

According to the World Nuclear Association, annual exposure to 100 mSv or greater carries a measurable, though small, increase in cancer risk. Below that level, it’s believed that your body’s cells are able to heal themselves from radiation. “There are enzyme systems in the body that repair damage from these low levels of background radiation,” says Thrall.

But even small levels of radiation exposure may impact cancer risks later in life.

This has been of particular concern in the medical community, where some experts worry that increasing use of diagnostic CT scans (which has skyrocketed from 3 million annual scans nationwide in 1980 to 70 million in 2007, according to MedPage Today) will impact future cancer rates. For example, in one 2009 study, National Cancer Institute researchers estimated that one in 270 women and one in 595 men who had a heart CT at age 40 would eventually develop cancer related to the test.

While the health benefits of necessary diagnostic imaging usually outweigh the small risks of secondary cancers, it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before any procedure involving radiation to understand exactly what you’re getting, why you need it, and what the potential health risks may be.

Bottom line: Americans are exposed to far more radiation in their daily lives — and especially from certain medical tests — than from dispersed particles traveling across the Pacific. “With what we know now about the situation in Japan, there are no personal or public health risks apparent for people in the United States,” Thrall says.