From midnight munchies to mono, Dr. Gregory Healey takes questions from readers

Dr. Gregory J. Healey

With spring comes pollen and grass and I always feel the onset of allergies. What’s the best way to minimize the effects of allergies without something like allergy shots?

Allergens and irritants like pet dander, perfume and smoke can be avoided. But good luck if it’s the family cat. Most pollens, mold spores and house dust mites cannot be completely avoided but basic cleaning, removing broadloom carpeting and closing windows at night help. Dehumidifying the basement and humidifying the interior air in the winter helps, too. Drug therapy includes over-the -counter antihistamines such as fexofenadine, prescription drugs like Singulair and topical nasal sprays with steroids or antihistamines. Do not use over-the-counter nasal decongestants as your nose will become addicted to them. Allergy shots do work but they are time consuming and you will get to know every patient in your doctor’s practice as you wait the half-hour after each shot in the waiting room.

When I get stressed, I often break out in hives. What’s the best way to stop the itch and help the swelling?

Hives are a skin reaction mediated by histamine, so any antihistamine will do. The fastest acting is Benadryl but it can be sedating.  OTC non-sedating anti-histamines such as loratidine are available. Keep cool as the hives will worsen with anything that heats you up. If ordinary life stresses are affecting you daily then consider seeing your doctor about it.

I work a desk job and am at the office for long hours, so I don’t exercise enough to balance the amount of time I spend sitting in a chair. Could this affect my health in the future?

The good news about exercise is that it doesn’t take much to make a difference.  Being completely sedentary is harmful, we all know that, but modest exercise such as walking for 15-20 minutes daily seems to confer most of the benefit of exercising in terms of health and longevity. If you enjoy the six mile run every day then go for it; but as a doctor, I’m very happy with the one mile walk.

What is a heel spur? I work on my feet all day and my feet are always hurting me. No matter how many inserts or sneakers I try, they don’t seem to help.

The heel spur is a bad name for a common problem which is plantar fasciitis. The plantar fascia is a tough canvas-like material that forms the sole of our foot and runs from the heel bone to the bottom of our toes.  Walking on hard, unforgiving surfaces all day with hard and unforgiving footwear puts an enormous strain on the fascia and it gets inflamed. After time this inflammation leads to the X-ray appearances of a heel spur.  The treatment though is to relieve the injurious process by modifying our lifestyle and getting footwear that works. Physical therapy and cortisone shots may help; surgery is a last resort and seldom indicated.

Is it true that children can outgrow food allergies? My son was once allergic to eggs but doesn’t seem to be so sensitive anymore.

Allergies may develop at any time in our life and we may desensitize to allergens over time as well.  Food allergies however are potentially very dangerous so I would be very careful about assuming that an allergy is gone.  In the case of eggs we tend to be allergic to the protein in the white of the egg and cooking may mitigate that allergy considerably.  A raw egg white might still be very allergenic.

What causes pink eye?  Is it something only children can get?

Pink eye has a number of causes. Our children get sent home from school over fear of bacterial conjunctivitis.  This fear is irrational and relates to a time when dairy herds were quarantined because a cow got pink eye.   Bacterial conjunctivitis is generally not that serious although we can treat it with antibiotic drops. Allergies and viruses can cause pink eye. The most serious causes include herpes that involves the cornea. This gives us a foreign-body sensation in the eye and/or affects our vision and needs to be seen by a doctor immediately.

There was an outbreak of mono at my children’s’ school, what advice should I pass along to them to minimize their risk of contracting it?

Mono is a viral illness that most of us endure before we reach grade school. It usually goes undiagnosed early in life because it tends to be a mild illness. If we do get it later in life it can render us quite ill; although the vast majority of cases resolve without incident. Avoiding mono is accomplished using the same techniques that avoid contagion in general: Hand washing, avoiding hand to mouth/nose contact and kissing only those we truly love.

Soy milk has become the go-to alternative for people who don’t like milk or are lactose intolerant, is it a good alternative to regular cow’s milk?

Soy milk is fine, although people can be allergic to soy protein. Milk is an optional, not essential, food for older children and adults. Newborns should get mother’s breast milk if at all possible or a commercial formula and children under the age of three should receive a substantial amount of their calories from whole milk. After that, milk is a perfectly fine food but not an essential part of our diet by any means.

What’s the difference between ibuprofen and acetaminophen?

Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory that is effective for arthritis, injuries and chronic inflammation.  Prolonged use can harm the stomach and kidneys and can increase stroke risk. Acetaminophen is an analgesic and reduces fever. It is safe for the stomach but prolonged heavy use can harm the liver. Both can be used to treat fever. A common myth is that they should be alternated in treating a child with fever. They can be used simultaneously though this is seldom required. I would choose one or the other. If you alternate the drugs you will get insufficient levels of both and your child’s fever may remain high.

When my kids are sick, they often drink sports drinks like Gatorade so they don’t get dehydrated. Is it OK for them to have sugary drinks like that when they’re nursing an illness?

Gatorade was developed for Florida football players training in July and August. Sport drinks are way too high in sugar to be healthy for anyone. They may be OK to treat a person with gastroenteritis but have no advantage over traditional water, clear soups and other fluid replacement strategies. Sugar laden beverages are a treat meant for occasional use and are not part of a healthy diet. Our society is dying of sugar, if you didn’t notice.

I read recently that you shouldn’t eat after a certain time at night, say 7 p.m. Can eating late at night really contribute to significant health problems?

This is a myth, right up there with “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” Thank you, Madison Avenue.  Lions do it, the Europeans do it and both those groups are healthier than us. Eat, sleep and then play and burn off those extra calories, you’ll be fine.

Dr. Gregory J. Healey is a family physician in Canton. This column is provided for informational use only and not intended as medical care. See a licensed medical provider to address any health concerns.