Saturday, November 24, 2012

Birth Control Pills Going Over the Counter?

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) have released a committee opinion statement that they recommend over-the-counter access to oral contraceptive pills (OCs). ACOG believes that access and cost are the major barriers to women using contraception, and that OTC birth control pills will greatly reduce those barriers, thus lowering the unintended pregnancy rate. ACOG feels that there is no significant safety risk when OCs are compared with medications such as aspirin, which has been OTC for decades. (Note, however, aspirin would unlikely be approved if it were starting the whole FDA approval process in 2012! Great drug, very useful, but the side effect profile is much higher than tolerated in drug trials today.)

This issue will surely be open to widespread debate, pulling in religious and political arguments as well as medical. I'd like to share my thoughts on purely the medical front. As a family physician, I appreciate the value of an "annual" physical exam and know that OC prescriptions are usually a tiny portion of that visit. As a busy mom, however, I know that many women are only motivated to make time for that exam when that visit is a requirement to continue taking a prescription medication- which for many healthy women, is only an oral contraceptive. I worry that women will push aside their other often silent health issues such as weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol if there is not another reason "forcing" them back in to see their physician. Additionally, there is significant counseling that we pair with birth control prescriptions- from logistics about the medication itself (taking it the same time every day; what to do if spotting or missed pills, etc.), discussions about the impact of OC's on other conditions such as depression or migraines,  and of course, education about sexually transmitted diseases. Additionally, I believe most clinicians and many OC users would agree that there is an art to choosing the correct OC that goes well beyond a basic flow chart. I shudder to think of the media war that will ensue as the drug companies ramp up their ads to try and capture their piece of the OC market. The pharmacists, though well-versed in OC pharmacology, simply will not have time to individually counsel women about these issues.

BOTTOM LINE: OTC OC's? Buyer beware. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Texting Can Save Lives?

Following up on yesterday's Great American Smokeout..., an interesting study was published this year looking at the effectiveness of TEXTING support to help people quit smoking. This was an analysis of several other studies, including over 9000 total participants. Text messages were used either exclusively or as a supplemental part of smoking cessation programs. Although the results were not fully consistent between the individual studies, ultimately the data is encouraging to support use of this ever-present appendage to aid people in quitting smoking.

In fact, the National Cancer Institute has a texting support program for smokers wanting to quit. Smokefree TXT is designed to be a 24/7 support system offering advice, encouragement and tips for tobacco users trying to kick their habit.

More and more, we are finding ways to use technology to help our health. This picture above is from the free e-card collection at the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Use the link above to check out the wide range of health reminders that you can share with your friends and family! Everything from flu shot reminders, to cancer screenings (think mammograms, pap tests and colonoscopies) to yes, quitting smoking.

BOTTOM LINE: Every bit of contact and support that we can give our friends to help them quit smoking is worthwhile- even texting!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Great American Smokeout!

TODAY, the third Thursday in November, is the annual GREAT AMERICAN SMOKEOUT sponsored by the American Cancer Society. Each year, smokers are encouraged to use this day as a QUIT date, or at least as a day to make a plan to quit. If you have a friend who still smokes, please reach out to them today and kindly encourage them with a reminder that today is a special day earmarked for their health. With this vice, there is NO amount that can be justified as being "good" for you.  Tobacco harms virtually every organ in the body. Everyone knows about the cause and effect of smoking and lung cancer, but cigarettes also greatly increase the risk of developing cancers of the bladder, kidney, pancreas, esophagus, throat, mouth, pancreas, stomach, ovaries, cervix and colon. Smoking directly increases your risk of heart disease- both heart attacks and strokes. Obviously it damages the lungs, causing chronic conditions with increasing shortness of breath and lack of energy.
Finally, appealing to your vanity (hey, whatever it takes!)- tobacco stains your teeth and gives you bad breath. And guys, smoking can lead to erectile dysfunction that evenViagra cannot "cure"...enough said.

Tobacco is one of the strongest addictions, and therefore often the most difficult to quit- if you are a smoker, I don't have to tell you that! The good news is that we have more ways to support you as you quit, and even if you have smoked for many years, quitting now still yields many benefits for your health! Blood pressure and carbon monoxide levels improve the first DAY you quit. In a couple months, both your circulation and lung function start to improve. In just one year after quitting, you will have cut in half your excess risk of heart disease compared to people still smoking. In a decade, your risk from dying of lung cancer falls to half that of a current smoker.

BOTTOM LINE: If you smoke- even "socially"- the SINGLE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR HEALTH IS TO QUIT SMOKING!!! Talk to your doctor and make a plan TODAY.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Elect NOT To Gain Weight This Holiday Season

Happy November! In honor of election day tomorrow, let's ELECT NOT to gain the standard 7-10 pounds during the holidays this year. We have begun the eating trifecta...Halloween, Thanksgiving & Christmas/Hannukah. Americans love to celebrate these holidays with excessive amounts of high calorie foods- in large quantities. Can you enjoy the season and NOT gain weight? Of course! But yes, some discipline and primarily large doses of awareness are necessary.

Let's start with the Halloween candy. Most people have "leftovers" of snack-sized chocolates. We finish up our favorites (always the Reeses cups in our home) and then mindlessly polish off the less desired ones simply because they are THERE. Take a look right now at your candy bowl (if it is still sitting out). Grab a bag & toss the candy into it, and drop it off at your neighborhood food pantry if you don't want to "waste" it by throwing it away.

As we move into party season, be very mindful as you walk into each gathering. Often hosts are handing out a delicious alcoholic beverage as guests enter...which is a double whammy. Number one- high calories in sipping form. Number two- alcohol goes hand in hand with mindless munching, especially high fat or high calorie treats. SO- politely declare your thirst and ask if you can start with a glass of WATER, which will actually help fill you up and keep your head clear for healthier choices. Many studies have shown that simply drinking a full glass of water before meals cuts calories and promotes weight loss, so this is a win-win!

BOTTOM LINE: Be conscious of mindful eating (and drinking) as we begin holiday celebrations, and there will be one less New Year's Resolution on your list!

PS. Did you remember to change your air filter on November 1st?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Can't Swallow That?

Difficulty swallowing, known medically as "dysphagia", is a very common complaint. In fact, up to nearly a quarter of patients seen in primary care settings will suffer from this problem. Dysphagia is definitely more common in the older population, whether they are in nursing homes or living independently.

What causes dysphagia? The most common cause depends on the age. In small kids, there may be structural problems present from birth that may need surgical correction. In adults, however, the cause is often something that can be fixed more simply, with medications and/or behavior changes.

Smoking, excess alcohol, and obesity all tend to increase stomach acid refluxing back up into the esophagus, which can cause pain or difficulty in swallowing. Reflux, also known as GERD (Gastro Esophageal Reflux Disease) is a very common cause of dysphagia that is seen in otherwise healthy people. Quitting smoking, stopping excess alcohol and weight loss can all improve symptoms, as well as taking medications that reduce acid production.

Medications such as NSAIDS (like ibuprofen), potassium supplements, antibiotics and osteoporosis medications can all cause problems with swallowing, so both diagnosis and treatment of dysphagia in this case may involve stopping prescription medications.

  • Let me take this opportunity to caution against "DRY SWALLOWING" pills. I cringe when I see people grab an ibuprofen and swallow it without a drink. Every time you take a pill or capsule, swallow it along with at least a half glass of liquid. Dry swallowing can essentially "scrape" or chemically irritate the lining of your esophagus. And please, let gravity help you get that pill all the way to your stomach- don't lie down for at least five or ten minutes after you take medications.

Less commonly, the more serious causes of dysphagia are to blame, including cancers, strokes, neurologic disorders such as Parkinson's Disease, advanced infections, or scarring from prior trauma or radiation.

BOTTOM LINE: Don't ignore trouble swallowing, especially if it persists or is getting worse. Schedule an appointment with your family doctor!