Dr. Richard Saint Cyr
“Leaves of three, let them be.” Sound familiar? This quote refers to the dreaded poison oak and poison ivy, plants which line hiking trails and woods around the world. To protect themselves from being devoured, these hardy weeds have developed a very effective defense; their shiny leaves contain a reactive oil that causes a severe local rash. It is incredibly itchy and can often burn in order to deter second attempts from bugs and birds. However, us hapless humans can develop a rash from merely brushing against these leaves.
It sure feels great to be putting away those thick down coats, but springtime also brings about sneezing patients with itchy eyes. The medical term for spring allergies is allergic rhinitis, which literally means “inflammation of the nose.” It is more commonly referred to as hay fever (even though allergies don’t cause a fever).
Have you ever considered buying only organic food? How about becoming a vegetarian? These options may have seemed unlikely before living in China, but many expats choose these options in a search for balance and health. Is either option a healthier alternative? I’d like to offer my medical and personal opinion.
I really should be more comfortable with Beijing’s cold winters, as I grew up in chilly New England. But after six years here, I still struggle with those long nights. I’ve developed a few survival skills for winter that I’d like to share with you.
Coughing is one of winter’s inevitable symptoms for all families. As viruses are passed back and forth, the usual runny nose and cough can be very disruptive, especially if it’s keeping both you and your child awake all night. For cough relief, we all have our favorite cough syrups, but which ones actually work?
The International School of Beijing is building a “pollution dome” over part of its outdoor fields. I‘m very pleased with the general trend of international schools enacting stronger air pollution action plans, with bans on most outdoor sports when the AQI is over 200. Unfortunately, hitting that level happens quite frequently in Beijing. I have strongly encouraged schools to enact stronger action plans to mimic the most evidence-based plans from the US’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and school groups from smoggy Los Angeles. Those plans generally agree that an AQI cutoff of 200 should trigger rescheduling of outdoor sports.
It usually feels like we live in a toxic world in Beijing, bombarded daily from the air and what we eat and drink. But what about the other extreme? Scientists are starting to realize that not all germs are created equal; there are good germs and bad germs. An infant needs certain exposure to some germs in the first few months of life, otherwise they could potentially develop some immune-system diseases – even obesity as an adult. This is called the “hygiene hypothesis.”
A fascinating study (pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/07/03/peds.2011-2825.abstract) published this summer followed 400 families. It demonstrated that in households with a dog, newborns were 30 percent less likely to experience the common cold, ear infections, and antibiotic use during their first year of life. Researchers hypothesize that early exposure to a dog’s germs are boosters for a small baby’s growing immune system. This is not the first study to find such a connection.
Did you know that as much as 80 percent of your lifetime exposure to sunlight happens before the age of 18? This early sun exposure slowly causes DNA damage and puts us at risk for skin cancer later on. One of the biggest risk factors for developing melanomas is the frequency of sunburns as a child. In other words, your lifetime risk factors for skin cancer can be largely predicted even before you leave high school!
Drinking a cold Coca Cola in the summer can be wonderfully refreshing, but it’s far too easy for children and teens to drink too much soda. The American Dietetic Association recommends a maximum of three 12oz cans a week. Americans are estimated to drink one 12oz can every day – but many drink much more than that, setting themselves up for major health problems.
Drinking soda has become one of the major causes of the worldwide childhood obesity epidemic, not to mention diabetes and cavities. Kids don’t realize that a 12oz can of soda contains 9 teaspoons of sugar and 140 calories. These empty calories quench your thirst, but not your appetite. What’s worse is that the sugar is usually derived from high-fructose corn syrup, an unhealthy form of sugar and an unnatural byproduct of corn.
Many of us have delved into China’s most famous traditions of acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), but it’s difficult to know not only which treatments are effective and safe, but which are suitable for your condition. I practice allopathic Western-style family medicine, but I also trained with many alternative medicine doctors in the hippie enclaves around San Francisco, so I am familiar with these complementary medicines. In my family medicine clinic, I am most comfortable with using some TCM herbs for stomach problems or the common cold. In fact, Western medicine is ineffective for the world’s most common illness – the common cold – and many OTC Chinese herbals, like my favorite cough syrup pipagao, can help relieve these symptoms. I sometimes recommend acupuncture to my patients for pain or headaches, especially if they’ve exhausted Western medical approaches.