Friday, December 28, 2012

How Contagious are Respiratory Tract Infections?

It's cold and flu season. Your co-worker in the next cubicle has a mound of Kleenex on his desk, obviously nursing a cold. Following a sneezing fit, you can practically see the germs coming over the cubicle wall seeking someone else to infect. With the common wintertime illnesses, what is your likelihood of becoming infected through exposure such as this? Are there ways of minimizing the risk of becoming infected?

One of the most common (and preventable) wintertime illnesses is influenza. Flu is typically spread via direct exposure to droplets from coughs or sneezes of someone with the illness. Homes, schools, dormitories, and areas with poor ventilation or recirculated air (such as commercial airplanes) are the places of highest risk for contracting this disease. There is a 20%-60% risk of contracting the disease from a family member with influenza.

Strep throat, caused by the Streptococcus bacteria, is a common cause of severe sore throat, particularly in children. Fortunately, this illness is less contagious than many of the viral upper respiratory tract infections. Spread occurs through close contact with an infected person. Sharing personal items, eating implements or a drinking glass with someone with an infection can lead to spread. Strep throat can also be spread through droplets released from coughing or sneezing. The likelihood of strep throat spreading to another family member is around 10%. Its spread is highly unlikely in the work situation.

The common cold is caused a group of viruses known as Rhinoviruses. Colds are spread either by direct contact with an ill person, breathing in droplets from coughs or sneezes, or from contact with tissues, linens, or other surfaces holding the virus. This group of viruses is highly contagious. It is estimated that family members have a 66% chance of contracting a cold from someone with the illness.

A particular concern among children are infections caused by Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV). This is a leading cause of bronchial infections and pneumonia in infants and children. Schools and day care centers are the places of highest risk for contracting this illness. RSV is spread from respiratory secretions through close contact with infected persons or contact with contaminated surfaces or objects. Significant exposure practically guarantees the development of this illness, although its severity is highly variable.

The most common type of bacterial pneumonia in adults is Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus). Spread of this illness usually occurs through direct contact with an ill individual or by breathing in droplets released from coughing or sneezing. Causal exposure to someone with pneumococcal pneumonia is very unlikley to result in spread of the disease. The exception to this may be in someone who can not fight infections normally.

There is a vaccine available to protec those at risk from contracting this disease. There are a number of things that you can do to help prevent spread of these infections:
  • Avoid close contact with people who are ill with one of these infections.
  • Unless ventilation is good, try to avoid shared space with people who are coughing or sneezing.
  • Wash your hands after greeting someone with a viral infection.
  • Encourage children to wash their hands. Kids are more likely than adults to spread infection within a family.
Sometimes it seems inevitable that an upper respiratory tract infection will develop at some point during the cold and flu season. As you gather with friends and family during the holiday season, proper sanitation and immunization practices will help you avoid the spreading of many of the more serious of these infections.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Best and Worst Toys for 2012

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) is a consumer-advocacy group whose stated mission is to "support parents' efforts to raise healthy families by limiting commercial access to children and ending the exploitive practice of child-targeted marketing." Each year, they announce their worst toy of the year, which has the dubious distinction of being given the TOADY (Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young children) award. While in the past toys with potential for injury headed the list of worst toys, this year's TOADY award finalists were toys that involved cell phone technology, unhealthy foods, and what they consider to be inappropriate gender-marketing.

This year's worst toy was the Laugh & Learn Apptivity Monkey from Fisher-Price. This toy, a stuffed monkey that holds an Apple digital device, is marketed for children 6 to 36 months of age. Fisher-Price promotes the Apptivity Monkey as the "best of both worlds for baby—a soft, cuddly friend to hold and hug, plus fun interactive learning with your iPhone or iPod touch!" This is counter to a policy issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that discourages TV and other media use by children younger than 2 years.

Two other contenders for the TOADY award, TheO Ball and Put Me in the Story app also utilized cell phones or cell phone apps. With the questionable goal of promoting physical activity, TheO Ball was designed to "hold your phone within its cushioned grasp, allowing you to literally throw your phone around to play games without fear of damage." Put Me in the Story app, allows popular children's stories to become e-books starring their own child. Many voters felt that this placed too much emphasis on the "me" and was a poor substitute for interactive book reading involving parent and child.

Other top five contenders included LEGO's Butterfly Beauty Shop and the 7-11 Slurpee Machine. The Beauty Shop encourages girls to "get primped and pretty and have some serious salon fun". CCFC felt that this toy promoted condescending stereotypes. Concerns regarding the 7-11 Slurpee Machine centered on children creating sugary treats that could lead to obesity or diabetes.

On the other side of the coin were Good Housekeeping's Best Toy Awards 2012 and Parenting Magazine's Best New Toys of 2012. In selecting their toys, Good Housekeeping considered those that incorporated "creativity, skill-building, problem-solving, and strategy". One hundred thirty-five different toys were "tested" by 140 children in laboratory and home settings to determine the 24 toys that made their best list. Editors from Parenting Magazine selected their best toys after attending the American International Toy Fair in New York. Twenty-five toys made the cut as the "Best in Play" for 2012.

A few of the toys that made at least one these lists are mentioned below:
  • ArchiQuest Architectural Elements (ages 4+); an updated twist on building blocks

  • Doodle Roll (Ages 3+), a kit that includes a 30-foot roll of paper and four double-sided crayons to encourage doodling and drawing.

  • LEGO DUPLO Creative Sorter (ages 1 1/2 and up); a toy which helps builders put together a parrot, elephant, and giraffe using LEGO pieces.

  • VTech Switch & Go Dinos (3 to 8); a toy that transforms from dinosaur to vehicle and back again.

  • Crayola Marker Airbrush (ages 6+); uses special markers and stencils to produce spray-paint — style art.

  • Techno Source Codee (ages 7+); interlocking blocks that form figures when kids follow a coded formula.

  • Silverlit Porsche 911 Carrera (ages 8+); a remote controlled car that can be steered via Apple's iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad.

  • Hasbro's Bop It! Smash (ages 8+); develops coordination as players harmlessly try to hit a moving target

  • Sbyke S-16 (Up to age 8); a "training" scooter with brakes

  • Rockboard Descender (Ages 8 and up); an all-terrain "skateboard" with tracks instead of wheels

  • K'NEX Atomic Coaster (ages 9+); a 4-foot tall track for gravity powered racing cars.
To see more of the best toys from 2012 by Parenting Magazine and Good Housekeeping, follow the links above.

Flu Hits Early and Hard This Year

Illness from influenza has already been confirmed in 48 states. This is the earliest that the nation has recorded this much activity in a decade. Unusually intense flu activity has been reported in a number of southern states including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. The type of flu being detected this year is caused by H3N2 viruses which are typically associated with more severe illness and higher-than-usual number of flu-related deaths.

Influenza can be particularly hard on certain populations. Young children, older adults, pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses, such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease, are more likely to suffer complications from the flu and require hospitalization. But even healthy people who experience an uncomplicated case of the flu know what a miserable experience it can be.

The flu vaccine is the best way to protect against this potentially serious disease. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older receive the flu vaccine. Flu vaccines cause antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide protection against infection with the viruses that are in the vaccine.

Flu vaccination is required annually because flu viruses are changing and a new vaccine is produced each year based on the predicted strains that will cause the flu. One bright spot this year is that the flu viruses that have been identified so far are the ones that were predicted to occur when the vaccine was being produced. This means that by receiving the vaccine you will receive protection against the three different flu viruses that were predicted for this season.

Delivery methods for the flu vaccine include the "flu shot" and a nasal spray vaccine. A new type of injection involving the use of a very small needle (intradermal) has been approved for use in people 18 to 64 years of age. The nasal spray is an option for healthy, non-pregnant people 2-49 years of age. Receiving your flu vaccine is becoming more and more convenient. In addition to the doctor's office, flu vaccination may be available at health departments, pharmacies, retail stores as well as schools and at the workplace.

It is estimated that 112 million Americans, representing 37% of the population, have already received their flu vaccine. While this is encouraging, it's important to realize that flu season has just started and does not usually peak until February. In past years, vaccination rates for influenza have been noted to taper off after November. National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW), this year scheduled for December 2-8, was established by the CDC to encourage people to become immunized during the holiday season. With already higher-than-average flu activity noted and anticipated gatherings of family and friends during the holidays, use this opportunity to protect yourself and your loved ones against influenza.