Bicycle injuries are mounting, especially in adults

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

These days, more and more adults bike to work, combining their daily workout with their daily commute, all while helping the environment. Unfortunately, biking is getting riskier. A study in this week’s Journal of the American Medical Association found that, between 1998 and 2013, the rate of bike injuries rose by 28% and the rate of people admitted to the hospital because of bike injuries rose by 120%. People over 45 had the greatest increase in injuries. And the majority of bike accidents now happen on city streets. The good news is that you can help protect yourself by learning and following the rules of the road, staying alert, and keeping some common-sense safety tips in mind.

Stopping foodborne illness — faster testing, vigilance at home

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

The steady stream of reports about foodborne illness is making many people think twice about their food. Foodborne illness sickens 48 million people annually, sending 128,000 to the hospital and killing 3,000. To improve testing for foodborne illness the FDA sponsors a Food Safety Challenge. Purdue University researchers walked away with the $300,000 grand prize, announced last week, for their new method that would dramatically shorten the time it takes to test for Salmonella, a disease-causing bacteria. While faster ways to detect microbes in food are a step in the right direction, we need to take action at home right now. All fresh foods contain at least low levels of potentially harmful microbes. Handling food properly and cooking it thoroughly can prevent most cases of foodborne illness.

Fourth of July grilling tip: Check for stray bristles after cleaning with a wire brush

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Like millions of Americans, I plan to fire up the grill today for a Fourth of July cookout. But I’ll be adding an extra step to my routine: checking the grate for bristles that may have fallen off my cleaning brush. An article in this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report describes six people injured by consuming grill-cleaning bristles hidden in grilled meat. Three had abdominal pain from wire bristles poking through the small intestine or colon. Three others had bristles stuck in the neck. All of the wire bristles were safely removed with open surgery or laparoscopy (“keyhole” surgery). The same team had published a report of six other cases earlier this year in the American Journal of Roentgenology. Twelve cases from one medical center over a three-year period does not an epidemic make. But it’s enough to suggest that ingesting wire bristles happens wherever home grilling is going on. Keep your grill bristle free by using a brush that’s in good shape. After you use a brush to clean your grill rack, use a towel or wadded up bunch of paper towels to wipe it down.

Editorial calls for more research on link between football and brain damage

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Is brain damage an inevitable consequence of American football, an avoidable risk of it, or neither? An editorial published yesterday in the medical journal BMJ poses those provocative questions. Chad Asplund, director of sports medicine at Georgia Regents University, and Thomas Best, professor and chair of sports medicine at Ohio State University, offer an overview of the unresolved connection between playing football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of gradually worsening brain damage caused by repeated mild brain injuries or concussions. The big question is whether playing football causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy or whether some people who play football already at higher risk for developing it. The Football Players Health Study at Harvard University hopes to provide a solid answer to that and other health issues that affect professional football players.

Two tricks to make it easier to swallow pills

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

The expression that something is “a hard pill to swallow” isn’t just a metaphor. Swallowing pills can be difficult and downright unpleasant. It causes one in three people to gag, vomit, or choke. That may keep people from sticking to their medication routines, which can make them sicker. A new study by researchers from the University of Heidelberg in Germany may help people with pill swallowing difficulties. They suggest two techniques — the pop-bottle method and the lean-forward method — that can help people swallow pills more easily. Both methods were tested among people with self-professed difficulty swallowing medicine, and offered improvements of 60% to 90%.

Make smart seafood choices to minimize mercury intake

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Fish and shellfish are great sources of lean protein, and many types are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. But there’s a catch: some species of fish contain worrisome amounts of methylmercury, a toxin that’s especially dangerous to developing brains. That’s why women who are or could become pregnant and young children shouldn’t eat high-mercury fish such as swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish. A new study hints that eating too much—or the wrong kind—of salmon and tuna can also boost mercury levels. But the study also offered reassurance: 95% of the nearly 11,000 people surveyed, including those who ate fish often, had blood mercury levels in the safe zone.

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.

Falling TVs injure 17,000 kids a year

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

More than 17,000 American youths end up in emergency departments each year with injuries from a falling television set. Two-thirds of them are under age 5, according to a report published online today in the journal Pediatrics. From 1996 to 2011, nearly 400,000 children under 18 years old were treated in emergency departments for TV-related injuries. In 1996, most of the injuries occurred when kids ran into television sets. By 2011, injuries from falling TVs dominated. The rate of TVs falling from dressers, bureaus, chests of drawers, and armoires nearly quadrupled. The authors of the study suggest that adding TVs to the list of furniture types that come with anti-tip devices “would be an important step in decreasing the number of injuries resulting from falling TVs.”

Medical crises don’t take vacations

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

The sudden hospitalization yesterday of Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, while vacationing on Nantucket Island is high-profile testimony that illness can happen at any time—even during a vacation. Heinz Kerry was taken by ambulance on Sunday afternoon to Nantucket Cottage Hospital. She was accompanied by her husband. After being stabilized, she and the Secretary of State were flown to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Neither the hospital nor Heinz Kerry’s family has commented on the nature of her illness. News reports say she is in critical but stable condition. Heinz Kerry’s situation highlights the value of electronic medical records, and the hazards of not having, or being able to access, medical information when you are travelling or on vacation.

New concussion guidelines say “When in doubt, sit it out”

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

New guidelines for recognizing and managing sports-related concussions could help protect the brains of millions of athletes at all levels of play, from professional football to youth soccer. The guidelines, released today by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), replace a now-outdated set published in 1997. The guidelines step away from trying to “grade” concussions or diagnose them on the field or sidelines. Instead, they focus on immediately removing from play athletes who are suspected of having a concussion until they can be evaluated. “When in doubt, sit it out.” The AAN estimates that concussions cause between 1.6 million and 3.8 million mild brain injuries each year. Many athletes don’t get medical attention for these injuries, often because they or their coaches don’t recognize the warning signs or take them seriously. The new guidelines should help better identify athletes who have suffered concussions and improve how concussions are managed and treated.