Infectious diseases

Don’t judge your mucus by its color

Robert Shmerling, M.D.
Robert Shmerling, M.D., Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Many people still think the color or consistency of nasal discharge determines whether you have a sinus infection. The truth is that anything that irritates the nose’s delicate lining — whether a virus, bacterium, or allergen — can result in any color or consistency of discharge. In fact, viruses are the most common cause of sinus infections, meaning you shouldn’t run to your doctor based on your mucus color alone.

What the rise of Zika (and other viruses) might tell us about our planet

John Ross, MD, FIDSA
John Ross, MD, FIDSA, Contributing Editor

Zika, a virus that was almost unknown just a short time ago, is now certain to spread to almost every country in the Americas. But why have the U.S. and other countries become more vulnerable to the threat of exotic pathogens? There currently aren’t enough data to make any solid connections, but many experts agree that the rise of global trade and travel, climate change, and ecosystem changes are all major factors.

What you need to know about Zika virus

John Ross, MD, FIDSA
John Ross, MD, FIDSA, Contributing Editor

Zika, a formerly rare and obscure virus, has recently spread throughout the Pacific islands and the Americas. Although Zika virus rarely makes people seriously ill, it’s been implicated in a huge rise in the number of birth defects in babies born to mothers who’ve had Zika. Although its impact in the U.S. is expected to be much less severe than in warmer climates, we’ve listed some tips to reduce your exposure to the type of mosquito that carries Zika.

New cures for hepatitis C — but are they affordable?

Gregory Curfman, MD
Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

Recently, several new drugs have been developed to treat hepatitis C, a serious viral infection that can cause severe liver damage if allowed to run unchecked. But these new drugs are incredibly expensive, and are unaffordable for many people who need them. Until drugs for hepatitis C (and other high-cost drugs) are priced at affordable levels, many people will be left unable to benefit from modern advances in drug therapy.

“Not Again!” — When UTIs won’t quit at midlife

Hope Ricciotti, MD
Hope Ricciotti, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) occur in women of all ages. Physical and hormonal changes can leave women at midlife particularly vulnerable. No woman should have to put up with the inconvenience and discomfort of recurrent UTIs. Self-help measures can be effective, but if they don’t do the trick, see your doctor. He or she can identify and treat any underlying problems and recommend other strategies to keep UTIs at bay.

Despite an Ebola death in the U.S., the likelihood of an epidemic here is low

Beverly Merz
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

The New York Times has described Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to die of Ebola virus infection in the United States, as “the Liberian man at the center of a widening health scare.” Use of the term “health scare” about Ebola in the U.S. just isn’t warranted, according to a consensus of several Harvard experts who have looked at Ebola through different lenses. They give four main reasons why an epidemic of Ebola virus disease isn’t likely to happen here: 1) the virus is relatively difficult to spread; 2) we have an effective emergency-response infrastructure; 3) Most hospitals are equipped to treat Ebola safely; and 4) new treatments are in the works.

Protecting your children against Enterovirus D68

Nancy Ferrari
Nancy Ferrari, Senior editor, Harvard Health

Enterovirus D68 is a respiratory infection that has been spreading across the country and making some children quite ill. It is especially problematic for kids with asthma or other respiratory issues. Enterovirus D68 can start out looking like a garden variety cold but lead to serious trouble breathing. What’s a parent to do? The same things he or she would normally do during cold and flu season: hand washing, staying away from people who are sick, regularly cleaning common surfaces like doorknobs, not sharing cups and utensils, and coughing or sneezing into the elbow, not the hands. Those who have children with asthma need to be extra vigilant about their child’s asthma care routine. Most upper respiratory infections are the simple cold. Still, it’s important to stay alert for signs of breathing difficulties.

Global cooperation needed to stop the spread of Ebola virus disease

Mary Pickett, M.D., Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

The news and images out of West Africa, the center of an outbreak of deadly Ebola virus, are a bit scary. In the three countries affected by the outbreak —Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea — more than 1,300 people have been sickened by the virus and more than 700 have died. Liberia closed its borders in an effort to prevent the infection from spreading. Images of health workers in protective gear ministering to patients and disinfecting the dead flash across screens. The Peace Corps has pulled all of its volunteers out of the three countries, and U.S. health officials have issued a warning not to travel to this area. We live in an interconnected world in which air travel can spread contagious infection thousands of miles away in a few hours. The director-general of the World Health Organization has warned that this outbreak is moving faster than our efforts to control it and it comes with a high risk of spread to other countries. If Ebola does spread, containing the epidemic will take a level of cooperation on the part of the global public that we’ve never before needed.

Not quite a threat yet, but MERS merits watching

Anthony Komaroff, M.D.
Anthony Komaroff, M.D., Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

In 2012, after the CDC declared SARS presented a threat to the public’s health and safety, public health and infectious disease experts took note of a new viral respiratory disease that was also caused by a coronavirus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). So far, roughly one-third of the people with confirmed cases of MERS have died. Until recently, most cases of MERS occurred in countries in the Arabian Peninsula. But this month, two cases of MERS have been confirmed in the United States. At the most recent meeting of WHO’s Emergency Committee members expressed growing concern about MERS, but since there is currently “no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission” the situation doesn’t yet meet the criteria for a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Drug-resistant bacteria a growing health problem

Lori Wiviott Tishler, M.D., Assistant Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria sicken more than two million Americans each year and account for at least 23,000 deaths. The main cause? Overuse of antibiotics. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013, details the health and financial costs of antibiotic resistance in the United States. In terms of health, antibiotic resistance should be in the CDC’s top 15 causes of death. It also adds as much as $20 billion in direct health-care costs. And the problem could get worse before it gets better. Antibiotic resistance is a problem because commonly used antibiotics will become less able to treat common infections. The CDC identified three types of bacteria as urgent hazards: Clostridium difficile, Enterobacteriaceae, and Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Decreasing the use of antibiotics and preventing infection in the first place are two key steps to halting the problem.