Health Menaces Of 2011

Health.MSN.com
Monday, December 26, 2011

Every December, you see lists of the year's standout films, books, and songs. Here's ours: The most notable film is bacterial. The must-read? Your text messages, but only if you aren't driving. And the top song is an instrumental: the sound of your bell being rung on the field.

Those are three of 2011's top six health scares. Read on to learn just how scary they were and what you should do to dodge all six in 2012.

Health scare: German E. coli outbreak

The outbreak began in Germany with a batch of tainted sprouts-and ended with 50 deaths and more than 4,000 infections worldwide. What made this never-before-seen strain the deadliest in modern history? One possibility: The German bug is unusually adept at clinging to the human GI tract, says Robert Tauxe, M.D., M.P.H., deputy director of foodborne diseases at the CDC.

Outlook for 2012: There's still one mystery surrounding the outbreak: Where did this unique E. coli strain come from? A person? An animal? "Until we understand this, it's tough to say whether or not an outbreak will occur in the United States," says Edward Dudley, Ph.D., an assistant professor of food science at Penn State University, who has studied E. coli for a decade.

Protect yourself: Even if the German E. coli strain doesn't migrate to America, you're still at risk from eating raw sprouts: They've been the source of at least 30 salmonella and E. coli outbreaks in the United States since 1996. So make sure you blanch sprouts for 1 minute in boiling water before you eat them. Other produce can be safely cleaned with a cold-water rinse plus a quick scrub, especially if the skin is edible or the produce requires slicing. For more ways to avoid foodborne viruses, read The 10 Dirtiest Foods You're Eating. (Your knife can transport bacteria from the skin into the flesh-a food-safety slipup that may be behind the recent listeria outbreak traced to Colorado cantaloupes.) And don't forget to check your chuck: Simmons College researchers found that only 3 percent of home cooks check the temperature of hamburgers, despite the fact that 90 percent of those cooks are aware of the link between raw ground beef and E. coli. Ground beef and ground pork should hit an internal temperature of 160 degrees F; poultry should reach 165 degrees F.

Health scare: Bedbugs

Bedbugs are notorious city dwellers. But now the little bloodsuckers are spreading so fast that even suburbanites are finding them under mattresses and in dark corners. Infestations leaped by as much as 30 percent in 2011, according to a new survey from the National Pest Management Association (NPMA). The reason for the spike isn't entirely clear, though the study points to an uptick in travel, bedbugs' increased resistance to pesticides, and a lack of education on how to stop their spread.

Outlook for 2012: Scientists recently convened in Washington, D.C., for the Second National Bed Bug Summit, but it may be a while before we see the results of their strategizing. After the meeting, the EPA awarded 1-to 2-year research grants to explore new methods of eradication. In the meantime, you can expect the spread to continue: The little buggers are among the toughest pests to eradicate, according to the NPMA.

Protect yourself: Bedbugs like to hide near their food source-sleeping humans-so check around your sheets, pillowcases, and mattress for tiny black spots (excrement), reddish spots (crushed bugs), small white eggs, or bloodstains. If you suspect you're sleeping with the enemy, place a Climbup Insect Interceptor Bed Bug Monitor and Trap ($20) under each leg of your bed. A slick layer of talc lining the traps will capture any passing pests. Catch a couple? Call an exterminator who's trained in dealing with bedbugs. Click here for even more ways to eliminate germs from your life.

Health scare: Caffeine and alcohol

Remember Four Loko? How about Moon-shot? Joose? Every can packed a powerful combo of alcohol and caffeine-so powerful that in 2010 the FDA warned the drink manufacturers to cut out the caffeine. But fans weren't deterred. "All those people who were buying the premixed versions are now mixing it themselves," says Cecile Marczinski, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Northern Kentucky University, who studies the effects of mixing alcohol and energy drinks. "There is no indication that this pattern of drinking has changed in any way."

Outlook for 2012: The FDA action had an unintended consequence: It stoked people's curiosity about mixing caffeine and alcohol. "The minute you take something off the market, everyone wonders what it is," Marczinski says. Plus, she adds, bars tend to push energy drinks (they're high-profit items), and the government can't easily intervene. "Alcohol and energy drinks are two separate industries, so they are regulated separately."

Protect yourself: Think of an energy drink plus alcohol as a skull-and-crossbones combination. "All the behaviors you see with alcohol intoxication, including impulsiveness and bad decisions, tend to be exacerbated when you add caffeine," says Marczinski. "You don't feel tired, so you don't accurately perceive your level of intoxication. You end up drinking more." Even without the caffeine, unconventional alcoholic drinks like Four Loko can be dangerous. A new paper in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science theorizes that when alcohol comes in an atypical form or flavor-as a fruity, sodalike beverage, say-your level of tolerance may be lower because your body isn't expecting the booze. But what about energy drinks themselves? Do those popular beverages even work? Find out the truth about the ingredients in energy drinks.

Health scare: Antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea

As if Japan didn't have enough health headaches in 2011, researchers there have discovered a new superstrain of gonorrhea. The H041 strain stands out from other love bugs because it's resistant to cephalosporin-the last remaining class of antibiotics recommended to treat gonorrhea, explains Robert Kirkcaldy, M.D., M.P.H., a medical epidemiologist at the CDC. "The strain was collected from a female sex worker-a grave concern because she probably had multiple sexual partners during the time she was infected."

Outlook for 2012: Looks like a new Japanese import could arrive on our shores. A 2011 CDC report warns that a cephalosporin-resistant strain may eventually crop up stateside. And since "regular" gonorrhea is already the second most common infectious disease in the United States, the superstrain will likely spread fast, unless you...

Protect yourself: One of the challenges in controlling gonorrhea-no matter which strain-is that roughly half of infected women show no symptoms. In other words, you may not know your partner is a carrier. Add to that the fact that men often apply condoms after foreplay begins and remove them before ejaculation occurs, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine; doing this could raise your risk of STD transmission. So reach for the rubber early and take it off late-and make sure the thing fits. Fitted condoms break significantly less often than standard-size gloves, recent Indiana University research suggests. For a custom fit, try Coripa condoms, which come in 55 sizes ($12 for six). And to protect yourself from the new sex cancer for men, read up on a few key HPV prevention tips.

Health scare: Sports concussions

Concussions hit the headlines this year from day one: On January 1, Stanley Cup winner Sidney Crosby took a blow to the head and 4 days later was struck again. Doctors diagnosed him with a concussion; he was out for the rest of the season. In September, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley and Eagles quarterback Michael Vick sustained similar injuries. The big guys brought national attention to a growing problem: The rate of traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, is on the rise in the general population, according to the most recent CDC data.

Outlook for 2012: "Concussion rates may continue to rise," says Johna Register-Mihalik, Ph.D., A.T.C., a researcher at the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The trend may partly be a function of increased awareness-concussions that once would have been written off are now being diagnosed. But the game is also changing. "Athletes are getting bigger, stronger, and faster, and people now often play sports year-round," she says. Although pro and college leagues have adopted stricter safety standards, those standards may not trickle down to the recreational level at which performance is less critical and doctors aren't waiting on the sidelines, says Register-Mihalik.

Protect yourself: Strengthen your neck to protect your head. "A stronger neck helps control acceleration of your head, especially when you're able to prepare yourself for a blow," says Register-Mihalik. "This in turn may slow the movement of your brain, which is the cause of concussion." Try isometric neck flexions-you press your forehead firmly against your hand, trying to resist as much as possible. Then, whenever you think you're about to take a hit, try to brace yourself: Look in the direction of the potential hit, tense your neck muscles, and bend your knees and waist slightly. "If you're prepared for the impact, it may help dissipate the force to your brain," Register-Mihalik says.

Health scare: Multitasking motorists

We'll assume you've wised up and stopped texting behind the wheel. But even if you aren't stupidly typing and driving, you could still be endangered by all the idiots who are-and there are plenty out there: In a recent CDC survey, more than half of U.S. drivers ages 18 to 29 admitted to texting (or e-mailing!) while driving at least once in the last 30 days.

Outlook for 2012: To date, 34 states have banned texting while driving, but legislation may not be the answer. Since California implemented the ban in 2009, rates have doubled, according to a new Automobile Club of Southern California survey. Drivers may now simply hide their phones while texting, leading them to look down for longer periods of time. As a result, crash rates have actually increased in some states with texting bans, according to a study by the Highway Loss Data Institute.

Protect yourself: Learn how to spot a multitasking motorist: Texting drivers generally drive more slowly than the rest of traffic and tend to drift in and out of their lanes, say Clemson University researchers. If you spot a meandering slowpoke, allow for more than the typical 4-second following distance, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood advises. You should also pay particular attention as you approach highway off-ramps-distracted drivers are more likely to miss their exits and may swerve at the last minute to make them, according to a recent report from the National Safety Council. For more ways to handle any driving scenario, check out The 100 Best Car Tips for Men.