Wednesday, November 26, 2008


When traveling this holiday season, don’t forget your meds

The holidays are just around the corner, which means many people will be traveling to visit friends, family members, and for some lucky folks, exotic sunny beaches.

Packing for a trip is usually a hectic time, but with some simple planning and preparation, you can safely pack your drugs and prevent any medication misadventures while away from home.

Many medications cause “photosensitivity”, or increase your body’s sensitivity to sunlight. Talk to your pharmacist about your medications to see if any of yours have this side effect. If they do, and you will be somewhere sunny, you will likely need to use a sunscreen with a high SPF (skin protection factor) to prevent sunburns.

If you are flying, keep your medications with you in your carry-on luggage. This way if the rest of your luggage is lost, you will still be able to take your medications when needed. You will also still have access to your medications in the event of long flight delays. Keep in mind that airport security requires that you keep your prescription medications in the original labeled containers that they were dispensed in from the pharmacy.

Take along more medication than the number of days you plan to be away. You do not want to miss out on a chance to extend your vacation, or put your health at risk if you do, because you ran out of medications. Also, make arrangements with your pharmacist for early refills if you need them. By telling your pharmacist ahead of time (and not the morning your flight leaves) they can often contact your insurance company to get an early refill approved at no additional cost to you.

If you do run out of medications while away there are a few things you can do. If you use one of the national chain pharmacies and they have a pharmacy at your destination, they will be able to dispense a refill to you. You can also call your doctor with the name and phone number of a nearby pharmacy and they may be able to call or fax a new prescription for you.

Finally, you can ask your home pharmacy to mail a refill to your destination or have a relative back home pick up your refill and mail it out to you.

If you are visiting pharmacies in foreign lands, beware of buying unfamiliar over-the-counter medications. Different countries have different medications available without a prescription. Some of the medications are also sold under different names and may not be what you expect.

Planning and packing your medications is every bit as important as that special gift for your niece or a good book to read on the beach. Ensuring you maintain your health by taking your medications as prescribed on vacation will help you get the most out of trip -- even if it’s to the in-laws.

Michael Smith is a pharmacist and Clinical Coordinator in the Department of Pharmacy Services at The William W. Backus Hospital. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. If you want to comment on this column or other health topics, go to the Healthy Living blog at or e-mail Smith and all of the Healthy Living columnists at

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


This Thanksgiving, be a kid again

I have to say Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday growing up. The family traditions during this holiday were so important during my own childhood. I am privileged to re-live these experiences and shape new ones with three beautiful blessings of my own.

Here are the ways I’ll be spending time together in the kitchen with my kids:

Creating memories not just meals. I was always in charge of helping my grandmother with her pies. I remember that special time together with her in her farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania.

The dough, I will never forget, was made from scratch. Not the kind you get from a box and roll out. (Not that there is anything wrong with that – I do it myself from time to time.) Making your own dough is a good lesson to teach. It requires patience and practice — and creates special memories.

I firmly believe that a very big part of teaching our kids to eat well involves getting them in the kitchen. My boys have had a few lessons in making dough from scratch. And not just pie dough. The dough for our cinnamon buns on Christmas morning requires extra special touches.

Making dough is a kind of parental metaphor for me. It’s hands on! It “kneads” practice and LOTS of patience. It is filled with eager anticipation, shaping and molding along the way and is completed with endless admiration and pride.

Playing with our food. Part of the experience of learning about food is play. So what fun we are going to have creating a nibbling centerpiece this year! I am partial to the Fruit Topiary we came across in Scholastic’s Parent and Child Magazine. But my boys voted for the absolutely edible vegetarian turkey from Family Fun!

Check out this link:
With a melon body, a pear head and cheese and grape kabobs as feathers, what’s not to love? This is a fun way to up your family’s fruit and vegetable intake this season. I am going to find it hard to stay away from the kid’s table.

A side dish their very own. Cooking instills pride. Have your child take ownership of something. We like the idea of swirling mashed white and sweet potatoes together. Peeling and mashing are kid friendly.

Have your kids name their creation something fun like “Sweet Swirly Mashers.” Or how about that plain old stuffing that my kids won’t touch. Have them recreate it with fun additions like nuts and fruit. Apples, dried cranberries and pecans or walnuts all taste spectacular together in our “whole grain fruity-nut-nut bread pie.” We bake it in a pie dish. Go on - think outside the bird!

And you don’t have to be a Mom RD (Registered Dietitian) to teach food facts along the way. While making your pumpkin pie together this year, share these fun food facts with your kids. The kitchen is a great place to teach math, build vocabulary and share important family time together. For more information on fun food facts you can share with your kids, visit

Be graceful: While grace before meals is family tradition year-round in our house, it will be a top priority before our Thanksgiving meal. Being thankful should not go without being said. This year my boys are choosing their favorite grace from our collection of many books and cards we’ve read throughout the year. Some of our favorites are: 52 Ways to Say Grace by Running Press; Give me Grace by Cynthia Rylant; and 100 Graces: Mealtime Blessings by Marcia M. Kelly.

The family table: There is just something about assigning seats that brings out the kid in me. It’s another tradition I cherish to this day. I see my boys light up when it is time to set the table: “Grandma is sitting here and Uncle Pete is going to be next to me!” is music to my ears coming from the dining room. Last year we made a variation of these place gobblers from Family Fun Magazine.

Finishing touches: Yes we have all heard the advice to get out and go for a walk after our Thanksgiving meal. How many of us do it? Fortunately for kids, physical activity generally comes easy. So join in to get your turkey-stuffed self moving.

One year it was raining out and the boys took to flipping on couch cushions and dancing to the karaoke machine. You bet I joined in. They didn’t know I could cartwheel. A family game is a nice way to end the day.

E-mail me your family-friendly healthy holiday traditions. I’d love to hear from you. And have happy, healthy holidays.

Renee Frechette is a registered dietitian who serves as the outpatient oncology dietitian in the The William W. Backus Hospital’s Radiation Therapy Center. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Frechette and all of the Healthy Living columnists at or comment on their blog at

Monday, November 10, 2008


They might not do house calls, but physicians have new ways to communicate with patients

The constant barrage of news, sports, weather and health information dominates all media outlets. Constant updates can be received via television, radio, newspapers, internet and personal e-mail. Mass distribution of health information often leads to more questions than answers.

Recently, respected physician Dr. Nancy Snyderman appeared on a Today Show segment concerning the dangers of immunization. Host Matt Lauer referred to it as a “controversial” topic, which she refuted.

Snyderman, armed with multiple medical studies, stated that no controversy could exist where medical evidence definitively demonstrated certain facts and any action to the contrary could lead to a public health crisis.

Physicians increasingly find themselves serving as a filter for information that overwhelms patients. While many discussions occur in the exam room, more and more physicians are using mass media tools to reach patients. A good example is this Healthy Living column where physicians and other health professionals provide weekly information on a variety of topics.

Some physicians have become full-time media consultants employed by various print, television and internet media outlets. These physicians realize that the information they share in the exam room with one patient may be helpful for thousands of others.

Exchange of information and ensuing arguments are often a good thing. Problems arise when the information is inaccurate and generated for individual gain. Some helpful hints for assessing the source of medical information are:
• Reliability– Is the media source one that will check the information for validity?
• Authority – Is the source of information a qualified, unbiased professional in that field who is not being paid to represent a certain position?
• Marketing – Is this information leading to a potential sale of a medicine, supplement or equipment?
• Hollywood Factor – Many celebrities like Jerry Lewis, Danny and Marlo Thomas and Michael J. Fox have done great work on behalf of medical causes. Others have been unknowingly duped into advocating for less legitimate groups. Always check who is behind the star-studded line-up.

An excellent source of accurate health information is the website for a community hospital. Locally, Backus Hospital provides a variety of publications, podcasts, blogs and community programs. Backus also has a Health Question phone line (860-885-6445) that can be accessed 24 hours a day. Questions will be answered after they are appropriately researched.

Another source is a personal physician. Patients should write down no more than five thoughtful questions to ask at a visit.

As the health information deluge continues, newer ways must be developed to assure the accuracy of the content. Hopefully this will lead to a healthier and better-informed population.

Anthony G. Alessi, MD, is Chief of Neurology at The William W. Backus Hospital and in private practice at NeuroDiagnostics, LLC in Norwich. This information is not intended to replace advice from your personal physician. To contact Dr. Alessi, email him, or read his blog, listen to his podcasts or buy his book at

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Safety first this Halloween

“It’s Halloween! It is finally here,” said my four-year-old daughter who has been waiting since the beginning of summer. She even kept a “countdown” calendar in anticipation of Oct. 31, which has evolved into one of the more popular holidays for both children and adults.

Halloween can be a fun time for all, with parties galore, costumes, spookily decorated homes and the treats. It’s one last dose of excitement before winter ushers in.

Amidst this excitement, be sure to exercise caution. The American Academy of Pediatrics has just released the following safety tips:
• Plan costumes that are bright and reflective. Make sure that shoes fit well and that costumes are short enough to prevent tripping, entanglement or contact with a flame.
• Consider adding reflective tape or striping to costumes and Trick-or-Treat bags for greater visibility.
• Because masks can limit or block eyesight, consider non-toxic makeup and decorative hats as safer alternatives. Hats should fit properly to prevent them from sliding over eyes.
• When shopping for costumes, wigs and accessories look for and purchase those with a label clearly indicating they are flame resistant.
• Pay attention to the weather forecast. In New England, the temperatures can be anywhere from the 70s to the 20s on Halloween night.
• If a sword, cane, or stick is a part of your child's costume, make sure it is not sharp or too long. A child may be easily hurt by these accessories if he stumbles or trips.
• Obtain flashlights with fresh batteries for all children and their escorts.
• Teach children how to call 9-1-1 if they have an emergency or become lost.
• To keep homes safe for visiting trick-or-treaters, parents should remove from the porch and front yard anything people could trip over such as garden hoses, toys, bikes and lawn decorations.
• Parents should check outdoor lights and replace burned-out bulbs.
• Wet leaves should be swept from sidewalks and steps.
• Restrain pets so they do not inadvertently jump on or bite a trick-or-treater.
• A parent or responsible adult should always accompany young children on their neighborhood rounds. Choose neighborhoods that you are familiar with.
• If your older children are going alone, plan and review the route that is acceptable to you. Agree on a specific time when they should return home.
• Carry a cell phone.
• Only go to homes with a porch light on.
• Remain on well-lit streets and always use the sidewalk.
• If no sidewalk is available, walk at the far edge of the roadway facing traffic.
• Never enter a stranger's home or car.
• Only cross the street as a group in established areas.
• Don't assume the right of way. Motorists may have trouble seeing Trick-or-Treaters.

Many of these tips are common sense, but every year we hear of mishaps that could have been prevented if these guidelines were followed. Have a happy –- and safe -- Halloween.

Ravi Prakash, MD, is a pediatrician on the Backus Hospital Medical Staff with a private practice in Norwich. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Dr. Prakash and all of the Healthy Living columnists at


Flu season is here – get vaccinated before it’s too late

“Doctor, should we be getting a flu shot?” It’s a common question I am asked during this season. Season after season for those of us in the Northeast, we have no chance of escaping the cold and flu – except the snow birds!

Holidays are fast-approaching. The sagging economy has everyone worried and the need to work harder and longer has become a necessity. There is no time to get sick or worse get the dreaded flu, which is now being reported in Connecticut.

The best way to avoid it is to get a flu shot.

What is Flu?

Let us review some of the key facts about Influenza, which is a viral infection of the upper airways (i.e. nose, throat) and lungs. A sudden onset of fever, runny/stuffy nose, sore-throat, cough, generalized aches and pains, and extreme fatigue are typical symptoms.

Among children it can commonly lead to nausea, vomiting and other complications such as dehydration. I have heard some of my patients’ parents refer to this as “stomach flu,” although medically speaking this is not entirely correct. It always is a “chest flu,” except children commonly have more stomach symptoms.

For a majority of people in good health, the illness lasts usually for 3-7 days, although cough and general aches and pains can last for more than two weeks. Obviously it is far more dangerous in certain populations such as young children, elderly and persons suffering from other illnesses like asthma, diabetes and heart disease.

How serious is Flu?

In the United States, each year on average 5-20% of the population gets the flu, of which about 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications and about 36,000 people die from flu. Complications from the flu include pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections and the worsening of existing heart conditions or asthma or diabetes.

Generally flu season starts in November and lasts until March but may start as early as October and can last as late as May. Flu spreads from person to person through coughing or sneezing by people with flu. Most persons with flu are contagious from the day before their symptoms appear until five days after becoming sick.

How do I prevent flu?

The single best way to prevent flu is to get a flu vaccine each year. There are two types of vaccines:
• The “flu shot” – containing killed virus that is given to people 6-months of age and older, and people with existing medical conditions or pregnant.
• The nasal spray vaccine – a weakened live virus vaccine that can be given to healthy people 5-years to 49 years of age who are not pregnant.

October and November are the best times to get vaccinated, but getting flu shots in December or even later can still be beneficial since most flu activity occurs in January or later in most years. It takes about two weeks for the protective antibodies to develop after the vaccination.

Who should get vaccinated?

In general anyone who wants to reduce their chances of getting the flu can get vaccinated. However the following are considered the high risk group as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
1. People at high risk for complications from flu, including:
• Children aged 6 months to 5 years
• Pregnant women
• People 50 years of age and older
• People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions, and
• People who live in nursing homes and other long term care facilities

2. People who live with or care for those at high risk for complications, including:
• Household contacts of persons at high risk for complications from the flu (see above)
• Household contacts and out of home caregivers of children less than 6 months of age (these children are too young to be vaccinated)
• Healthcare workers

Good health habits help

Good health habits are other ways to protect against flu:
• Avoid close contacts with people who are sick, keep your distance from others when you are sick
• Stay home from work, school and errands when you are sick
• Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and sneezing
• Wash your hands often
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth
• Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids and eat healthy food

Now that you learned a little bit about flu, call your doctor or local healthcare facility and get a flu shot. Enjoy your good health and happy holidays.

Ravi Prakash, MD, is a pediatrician on the Backus Hospital Medical Staff with a private practice in Norwich. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Dr. Prakash and all of the Healthy Living columnists at, or comment on their blog at

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