Health & Fitness

The You Docs: Know when antibiotics aren’t the best choice

When your little one has an ear infection or a bad cold and is crying half the night, all you want is a magic pill to make it better, but sometimes no pill is the best choice.

We’ve been advising parents for a long time not to automatically give their kids antibiotics for ear infections, the flu and bronchitis (all of which are usually caused by viruses). Antibiotics are designed to knock out bacterial infections, not viruses. And yet more than 50 million unnecessary and ineffective prescriptions for antibiotics are written to “treat” common viral infections every year in North America. And misuse only worsens the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Don’t get us wrong. These antibiotics are wonder drugs and millions of lives are saved every year, because they knock out infections. But be wise about using them: Giving kids common antibiotics — such as streptomycin and vancomycin — may eradicate good gut bacteria in their developing intestines; this, in turn, may damage their immune systems. The result? Researchers think the ever-increasing use of antibiotics may be what’s causing the number of cases of allergic asthma to skyrocket — there’s been around a 50 percent increase in the past decade. Now it’s estimated that 9 million kids in North America have this respiratory disease.

So when your child comes down with a cold, flu or other upper-respiratory illness, ask the doc if antibiotics are really the best solution. Sometimes less is more.

Bilingual brain benefits

We all know a few words in a foreign language, and more than 43 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 can have a conversation in at least two languages. But what about the millions of North Americans who speak only one? Good news! No matter what your calendar age, you can harness the power of language to develop and expand your brain.

Learning new words adds gray matter, as a matter of fact. (Your brain doesn’t have to shrink with age.) And adults actually are better at learning new languages than kids, if you can put aside linguistic habits (the brain gets trained to ignore sounds that it doesn’t need for comprehension) and embrace the nonsensical. That’s how kids learn; they associate sounds with objects, then recognize sounds and words as labels, then link words with meaning.

So to learn a new language, whether it’s with a class or through audio tapes, remember these tips:

•  Don’t stress. If you get anxious about learning new phrases, they’ll never stick. Meditate for five minutes before you start a lesson.

•  Practice listening and hearing. Tune into TV channels using the language you are learning. Don’t worry about understanding, just let it wash over you. Understanding comes later.

•  Stay in top shape: Speech is mental and physical. Staying at a healthy weight and keeping blood pumping reduces bodywide inflammation and feeds your gray and white matter the oxygen and nutrients they need to stay sharp. Voila!

Tale of the tongue

The tongue — that undulating muscle covered with pointy papillae and 10,000 taste buds that sense sweet, salty, sour and bitter — has on its surface thousands of bacteria, some pro (as in “probiotics”) and some con (as in “make your breath so bad you can’t have a CONversation”).

When everything is OK, the tongue is pinkish and sits comfortably in your mouth. Chances are you rarely think about it unless you’re cleaning it (you do, don’t you?) when you brush your teeth. Use a tongue scraper or toothbrush to remove plaque and bacteria and keep breath fresh.

Sometimes, however, the tongue changes. Three disorders — with no serious health consequences but lots of ick factor — include black-hairy, yellow and geographic tongue. (Geographic tongue causes smooth red patches with raised edges.) These conditions may be from bacterial overgrowth, an immune system glitch or an allergy.

Other tongue problems? Small ulcers on the edges of the tongue pop up from stress; lesions (raised, smooth, white areas) could indicate oral cancer; and thrush (a yeast infection) turns the tongue white.

Solutions? Antibiotics or other medications may be needed, but first try saltwater rinses along with brushing and flossing a lot. Stop using mouthwash or toothpaste with peroxide or with astringents such as menthol, and don’t smoke. If symptoms (especially a hard and white lesion) stay for 10 days, see your dentist or ENT (otolaryngologist). It may save your life.

Family dinner: Dynamite home cooking

Sharing a sit-down family dinner three or more days a week can transform everyone’s health and brighten your children’s future. If lowering blood pressure and reducing cancer and heart disease risk isn’t incentive enough, consider this: Dishing up dinner will improve your family ties; boost your kids’ health, self-esteem and grades; and rev up your love life. Pass the broccoli, please!

Here are the facts:

• 14 percent of teens who have family dinners five to seven times a week try cigarettes, and 12 percent try marijuana. But 35 percent of kids who have two (or fewer) meals a week with the family smoke tobacco and marijuana.

• Home-cooked meals contain less fat and more essential nutrients than the average fast-food chow (33 percent of single-serving drive-through meals deliver more than half a day’s recommended caloric intake).

• With dinner at home, you control the portion sizes and slow down the pace of your meal — a simple way to prevent overeating. Eating dinner together three or more times a week delivers a 12 percent cut in the risk that you and your kids will be overweight and delivers a 24 percent increase in healthy foods.