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by James Thomas, Saturday, 08 July 2017 | Categories: General Health

In 2017, vegetarianism and veganism are more popular than they have ever been. And yet, for those of us who still eat meat, there’s not much that a vegan campaigner could say to deter us from sinking our teeth into a juicy burger or our Sunday roast beef – until, that is, they start talking about the health risks.

We all know that eating too much red meat is not good for us, largely because it increases our risk of bowel cancer. Now, though, it seems that red meat could be worth avoiding for another health reason altogether: diverticulitis.

Diverticulitis is a condition affecting the colon, also known as the large intestine. It begins with diverticular disease, in which small bulges and pockets develop in the lining of the colon. Diverticulitis refers to a later stage of the condition, in which these pockets become inflamed or infected.

Diverticulitis Symptoms

The symptoms of diverticulitis include pain in the abdomen, particularly after eating; bloating; and a change in your bowel habits. It can also cause flu-like symptoms, such as a fever, feeling unwell, nausea, and vomiting. Diverticulitis can also lead to some unpleasant complications such as bleeding, urinary problems and the development of an abscess or fistula. In rarer cases, diverticulitis can lead to life-threatening conditions such as intestinal obstruction and peritonitis, both of which can require surgery.

According to research carried out recently, the unpleasant condition described above carries a clear association with the consumption of red meat. To get specific, data collected on 46,461 men between 1986 and 2012 indicated that those in the highest one-fifth for red meat consumption had a 58% increased risk for diverticulitis. Researchers suspect that red meat causes inflammation in the colon, which leads to the development of diverticulitis.

This is concerning because, while it’s common to be aware of the bowel cancer risk associated with eating red meat, many people will never have heard of diverticulitis. As a result they may they putting themselves at risk of developing the condition by eating too much red meat – this is a particular concern for people who fall into the following high-risk categories:

  • People who smoke
  • Being obese or overweight
  • Frequent use of anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen
  • Having a history of constipation
  • Having a family member with diverticular disease

It’s also thought that diverticular disease and diverticulitis are associated with not eating enough fibre.

The good news is that there are some steps you can take to help protect yourself from developing diverticulitis – and they don’t just revolve around cutting out red meat.

Preventing Diverticulitis

The first piece of advice that many doctors will give to someone with diverticular disease is to increase fibre intake. You can increase your fibre intake by consuming more fruits and vegetables, and eating starchy foods such as wholegrain bread, and brown pasta and rice. Pulses and beans are a particularly good source of fibre, as are nuts.

Other preventative measures include quitting smoking, losing weight and exercising more. Going by the study mentioned above, it’s also a good idea to limit your consumption of red meat – the NHS recommends that you should eat no more than 70g of red meat and processed meat a day. As explained by The Telegraph here, that equates to just under 500g of red meat and processed meat a week, which means that, over the course of seven days, you could eat one steak, one pork chop, two pork sausages and a portion of Bolognese sauce.

Treating Diverticulitis

If you do develop diverticulitis, it may be that it can be treated safely at home with a course of antibiotics. During this time you may be advised to stick to a liquids-only and later a low-fibre diet, to avoid putting too much strain on your colon. Once the diverticulitis has been treated, you will likely be advised to adopt a high fibre diet. It can also be helpful to lose weight, quit smoking and start exercising more.

If the condition is more serious, you may require hospital treatment and even surgery. You can read more about these treatments via the NHS.

Find out more about diverticulitis at our diverticulitis page.

by James Thomas, Saturday, 08 July 2017 | Categories: Asthma

If you’ve spent any time at all scrolling through the Daily Mail website, you’ll “know” that just about everything gives you cancer – whether it’s processed meat, chips, the contraceptive pill, or even having children. We live, in other words, in an age of shocking headlines, where our newspapers push scare tactics and a "can’t win" mentality that says – no matter what we do – we will find ourselves doomed to ill-health and unhappiness.

It’s with some scepticism, then, that you might find yourself approaching the asthma study carried out by the University of Liège back in March. Using mice, researchers examined how exposure to microbes could affect lung health. The findings indicated that the presence of bacterial DNA actively modified the immune environment of the lungs, which in turn helped to prevent the development of asthma. In simple terms: exposure to dirt was shown to be beneficial – and living in an environment that was too clean was shown to predispose you to asthma.

Time to Rethink Guidelines?

The reason this study is particularly frustrating is that all current guidance on asthma management stresses the importance of cleanliness. Just last year, we reported on new research that showed how "indoor pollution" – in other words dust, dirt, irritants and smoke within the home – play a worrying role in the severity of children’s asthma symptoms.

How, then, may we reconcile that knowledge with this new study? Well, the first thing to note is that this study has only been carried out on mice – although human studies have been planned. Secondly, it’s not clear from this research what constitutes "good" versus "bad" microbes. Lastly, the study seems to suggest that these findings are best applied in a preventative, as opposed to curative, manner. In other words – though this will require further consideration when more studies have been carried out – some exposure to microbes may be beneficial before, but not after, a person has developed asthma.

Going forward, asthma sufferers should not make changes to their asthma management – and parents wary of their children developing asthma shouldn’t stop vacuuming or washing their hands! For more guidance on good asthma management, read on.

Keeping Your Asthma Under Control

Many people with asthma do not consider it a serious or life-threatening condition, but that is largely because they are able to manage it well. Four simple rules for successfully managing asthma are:

  • Using your inhalers and medications correctly
  • Avoiding your triggers
  • Having a written Asthma Action Plan
  • Regular asthma reviews with your asthma doctor or nurse

Inhaler Use

If you only use a reliever inhaler, you should not be using it to treat asthma symptoms more than three times a week. Using it this frequently indicates that your asthma is not well-managed and that you probably require a preventer inhaler as well.

If you use a preventer inhaler you need to make sure you take it as directed – usually this means taking it twice a day. If you don’t use your preventer in this manner, you will not benefit from its protective effects. It’s also important to make sure you are using your inhalers correctly. You can do this by getting guidance from your doctor or nurse at your next asthma review.

To learn more about asthma medications, consult this guide from Asthma UK.

Asthma Triggers

Asthma symptoms are "set off" by certain triggers. These triggers vary from person to person; however, common ones include:

  • Allergens such as dust mites, pollen, and animal dander
  • Food allergies
  • Airborne irritants such as cigarette smoke and pollution
  • Infections of the upper airways such as the common cold
  • Food additives such as sulphites
  • Strong emotions such as stress or laughter
  • Weather conditions such as thunderstorms
  • Indoor conditions such as mould and damp
  • Exercise

One of the best things you can do for your asthma is to take note of your personal triggers in your Asthma Action Plan and try to avoid them as best you can. Because it’s not always easy to avoid these triggers, it’s even more important to make sure you are taking the correct medications and using your inhalers properly.

To find out more about asthma, and the medications available to treat it, visit our Asthma page.

by James Thomas, Thursday, 06 July 2017 | Categories: Eyes | General Health

Surfers and swimmers may be at a heightened risk of developing gastroenteritis due to the amount of sewage, laden with bacteria, entering the sea, according to new research. 

Activities such as diving and kayaking that bring people into contact with the sea can also increase the chances of developing a number of other illnesses. These include infection of the ears, eyes, throat and nose, as well as stomach aches, scientists are claiming. The University of Exeter’s Dr Anne Leonard, who is carrying out additional research covering the risk to bathers in the United Kingdom, says current research indicates that recreational activities in coastal waters are causing an increasing number of illnesses. 

Marine activities may also be increasing the chance of being infected with strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, like E. coli, which have been detected off the UK coast for the first time in large quantities by scientists. However, more research is required in order to confirm these findings, as, up to now, studies have relied upon symptoms being reported by swimmers themselves, making it uncertain whether they really were infected by these types of bacteria.

The path of the bacteria

Dr William Gaze, also of the University of Exeter, led the antibiotic resistant bacteria study, which has highlighted the extent to which a multitude of different kinds of bacteria are entering the sea. The bacteria arrive in the ocean by being passed into the sewage system via the human digestive tract, eventually entering rivers, and finally the ocean, when heavy rain causes sewers to overflow. Dr Gaze discovered that antibiotic resistant E. coli was being swallowed by swimmers and surfers in enough quantities to cause a genuine exposure risk. This makes it a real possibility that that exposure could result in infection, although that has yet to be confirmed.

A real mouthful

In a typical surfing session, participants tend to swallow about 1/6th of a litre of seawater, and that polluted water could contain up to 750 E.coli bugs that are resistant to antibiotics, according to Dr Gaze. However, there is a much lower risk of infection or exposure in the great majority of bathing waters, which have already been judged as meeting with water quality standards. 

Additional research is being carried out by Gaze’s team in order to learn more about the potential health risks inherent in seawater sports. Gaze admits that very little is really known about the way in which antibiotic resistant bacteria can be spread to humans by the natural environment, or how health could be impacted by exposure to such microbes. Given that millions of people spend time on beaches every year, increasing the risk of resistant E. coli being ingested, there could be an even higher level of exposure to resistant bacteria for all water users. 

Gaze’s team discovered that although just 0.12 percent of all E. coli located in coastal waters (and in rivers connected to beaches) were resistant to the important antibiotics class known as 3GCs, or third generation cephalosporins, that amount of concentration was still high enough to pose a potential exposure risk to those making use of the waters.

The Beach Bum survey

A novel experiment known as the Beach Bum survey has been devised by researchers at Exeter University, in order to learn more about the dangers to human health of ocean bacteria. 

150 body-boarders and surfers, who use the ocean three times every month as a minimum, were recruited and provided with a cotton bud. The participants could then self-perform a rectal swab, and hand the results in for examination. Those results are now being analysed by Dr Anne Leonard, in a bid to see what the swabs reveal about the bacteria content in their guts. It's hoped that this analysis could yield vital information about the level of risk caused by bugs that are resistant to antibiotics in our oceans. 

The study’s recruitment process was led by Andy Cummins from Surfers Against Sewage, a campaign group. Cummins says the aim is to have a clearer idea of the risks of entering the water. The study has now been completed, and the findings are expected to be published before long.

by James Thomas, Saturday, 11 March 2017 | Categories: Asthma

Around the world, concern is growing over the quality of the air that people – particularly big city dwellers – are forced to breathe. In London during January, air quality was so bad that legally mandated pollution limits for the whole of 2017 were passed in the first week of the year. The city's mayor, Sadiq Khan, spoke of what he called a "public health emergency", as toxic air hung over the central boroughs, a problem exacerbated by unusually calm weather patterns.

Everyone is at risk when conditions like these persist, but the potential health risks are even worse for anyone with respiratory or heart issues, with asthmatics often experiencing serious problems. Evidence is also mounting that cases of chronic bronchitis increase with worsening air quality. The figures for air pollution-related deaths in London alone are astonishing; every year, almost 9500 people in the city die early because of pollution-linked conditions, according to research conducted in 2015 by scientists from King's College.

Measures such as banning certain kinds of traffic in parts of a city, or restricting people from using private vehicles, can have a beneficial effect locally. But changing weather patterns or unusual conditions can result in pollution from other areas – even other countries – having a dramatic impact in distant cities. The ability of people and governments to work across borders to combat problems like this becomes immediately apparent under such conditions.

EU takes action

Around six weeks after the January pollution spike in London, the EEB (European Environmental Bureau) announced that five EU countries were consistently breaching air pollution limits. The UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy were, the EEB claimed, failing in their duty to protect people's health, and legal proceedings would follow. Furthermore, the EEB statement pointed out that this was not a new issue; the situation had been going on for years.

One particular pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, was singled out for its likely effect on young children with asthma, and its probable contribution to increased cases of bronchitis and other lung infections. It is the job of the European Commission to ensure that EU laws regarding air quality are upheld, and recent EU legislation includes new and more stringent emissions targets. The EEB's senior air pollution policy officer, Louise Duprez, said there was "no excuse" for not meeting the targets, and that children "deserved better" than to grow up inhaling toxic air.

Bronchitis: causes and treatment

Bronchitis is frequently mentioned as one of the effects of air pollution, though of course poor environmental air quality is not the only risk factor. Bronchitis, like pneumonia, is an infection of the airways and/or lungs, and can be a mild and relatively short-lived condition – acute bronchitis – experienced by people who have simply caught a cold. When the condition becomes a long-term, more serious health problem, it's known as chronic bronchitis.

The chances of developing bronchitis are increased by a number of factors, smoking being one of the most common. Chronic bronchitis can vary in intensity throughout the year, and environmental factors can have a causative effect, and can also make the condition worse. The main symptoms of both the acute and chronic varieties of the infection are a persistent cough with chest/lung discomfort or pain, and possible breathing problems. In emphysema sufferers, chronic bronchitis can lead to COPD, which can cause permanent lung damage in the long term.

There are a number of recommended ways to avoid contracting bronchitis, and stopping smoking is, unsurprisingly, at the top of the list. Not only does smoking cause lung damage, it lowers the body's resistance to infection. Staying within alcohol consumption guidelines – currently 14 units or fewer per week – and eating a healthy diet can help the immune system to fight infections.

It's important to be aware that bronchitis can be caused by both viruses and bacteria. Viral infections are not treatable with antibiotics. Mild cases of acute bronchitis may not require treatment, and in fact, using cough medicines is generally not recommended, as the body needs to expel phlegm by coughing. You should see a GP if your symptoms get worse or the condition doesn't clear up relatively quickly. In cases where antibiotics are appropriate, you may be able to order them from The Online Clinic – see the Free Online Assessment at the link.

by James Thomas, Saturday, 11 March 2017 | Categories: Womens Health

The term cystitis is used to describe a bladder inflammation, generally caused by a UTI or urinary tract infection. It's a common mistake to believe that only women can get cystitis; in fact, men are also able to develop it. The likelihood of cystitis in men is lower for one simple reason – the relative length of the urethra in men and women. In women, the potential transfer of bacteria into the urethra is made easier as the opening of the urethra is closer to the anus. This is not the only possible cause of cystitis, but it does explain the varying rates of the condition.

The condition known as interstitial cystitis, however, is somewhat different, both in terms of symptoms and of possible treatments. The main symptoms include a sensation of pain in the bladder (it's sometimes known as bladder pain syndrome, or IC/BPS) but without a clearly identifiable infection, as might be expected with cystitis. Pain like this is experienced in the lower abdomen, and is coupled with unusually frequent, strong urges to urinate. These symptoms may come and go in cycles over a few months.

The differences between cystitis and IC have led some researchers to believe that the condition is misleadingly named, and in fact the exact causes of IC are the subject of debate. Allergies have been suggested as a possible cause, as well as problems with the lining of the bladder or the pelvic floor muscles. It's also possible that IC may sometimes be a symptom of a separate condition (e.g. irritable bowel syndrome).

Possible new treatments for interstitial cystitis

The US-based Interstitial Cystitis Association suggests that up to 8 million American women suffer from IC, with possibly half as many men. The confusion surrounding the causes of IC (as opposed to cystitis) has led some US researchers to propose a step-based programme of treatments aimed at minimising its symptoms. In the early stages of treatment, these include lifestyle and dietary changes and advice on pain management. Dietary changes may include gradual elimination of certain types of food and drink, in order to find out which may be triggers for the symptoms. Some over-the-counter medications may also be prescribed by GPs.

The "steps" in this kind of approach to treating IC are ordered by risk factor; if the least risky strategies provide acceptable relief, there's no need to proceed to the next level. As an example, the fourth proposed stage of treatment may include Botox injections, while the following stages could involve surgery.

Cystitis: symptoms and treatment options

Cystitis itself is easier to treat than IC, and in fact some over-the-counter medications, as well as antibiotics in some cases, are available from The Online Clinic. While milder instances of cystitis often clear up without treatment, if you experience frequent symptoms, or the condition doesn't get better after a few days, you should see a doctor. Men with cystitis symptoms should always seek medical advice, and children complaining of similar symptoms should also be taken to a doctor. More severe symptoms may include fever and/or passing blood during urination.

Preventative measures are centred around avoiding bacteria entering the urethra (allowing bladder infections to develop) as well as certain lifestyle changes. While cranberry juice has long been thought of as a cure or prevention, there's very little scientific evidence that this is the case. Making sure you've completely emptied your bladder when you urinate is recommended, as well as wearing looser underwear made from natural fibres (e.g. cotton). Drinking plenty of water in order to flush out the urinary system is also a good idea.

It's also possible that irritants in certain kinds of shower gels, shampoos, bubble baths and similar products could be a problem; avoid perfumed varieties, and if possible take a shower rather than a bath. If you suffer from cystitis, try avoiding any drinks containing caffeine. These will not cause cystitis in themselves, but may aggravate the symptoms. Some medical professionals believe that the use of a bidet could be a risk factor for cystitis, as bacteria can be washed upwards towards the urethra.

It is important to see a doctor if cystitis symptoms don't clear up, as there is a possibility of contracting a kidney infection in some cases. However, cystitis is generally simple both to diagnose and to treat.

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