Spring-Clean Your Health: 6 Steps You Likely Forget

The mercury is rising, the trees are blooming -- and for many families, springtime means spring cleaning. But besides the broken toys and outgrown clothes, what else should you toss and update? Use these guidelines when you spring-clean to stay healthy, safe and prepared for the new season.

If you're a runner, experts recommend replacing your kicks every 350 to 550 miles, before they lose shock absorption and stability. Buy a new pair before your old pair wears out so you can break them in gradually, suggests Rudy Dressendorfer, a triathlete, American College of Sports Medicine fellow and personal trainer in Penryn, Calif. He recommends rotating in your new sneakers for a few workouts each week (or less than half of what you usually do in the old pair), especially if you're changing models or brands.

Smoke Detectors and Fire Extinguishers
You've probably heard that you should check your smoke detectors’ batteries twice a year. (Use daylight saving time, when you change your clocks, as a reminder.) But even with fresh batteries, smoke detectors that are older than 10 years may not work as effectively and should be replaced, says Lorraine Carli of the National Fire Protection Agency. For fire extinguishers, "check the gauge to make sure they are fully charged," she says."If they're not, recharge or replace it." Some extinguishers are disposable, she notes, and can only be used once.

You'll likely notice when makeup starts to go bad -- any change in color, consistency, or odor is a sure sign that it's time toss a product. While most cosmetics last for at least a year, the Food and Drug Administration recommends discarding eye makeup, like mascara, every three months. They may have bacterial growth, which can lead to an eye infection. And you may need to replace all-natural brands sooner because their plant-based ingredients may breed bacteria. Be sure to keep facial tissues around too -- they can be a lifesaver, especially this season, for quick makeup touchups or help with allergies.

All medications -- both prescription and not -- should have an expiration date printed on their package or, in the case of ointments, embossed on the crimp, says Kathleen Besinque, associate professor of clinical pharmacy at the University of Southern California School of Pharmacy. If a medication isn't in its original packaging, don't use it."I advise that people review the contents of their medicine cabinet at least once a year," says Besinque. But don't flush or throw away prescription drugs, which can contaminate waterways. Visit the FDA website for information on how to dispose of them safely.

If you take vitamins or supplements regularly, they should run out before they expire. For those of you who don't take your vitamins daily, don't hang on to them past the expiration date, when they may begin to lose effectiveness, says Besinque. If the bottle doesn't have a date stamped on it, throw it away -- and opt for a different brand next time.

Change your toothbrush -- or if you have an electronic toothbrush, swap out the head -- every three to four months, advises the American Dental Association. That's when bristles start to wear down and aren't as effective at removing cavity-causing plaque. It's also a good idea to toss your toothbrush earlier than that if you've been sick, if you're more susceptible to infection or if the bristles become frayed.

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5 Surprising Reasons You Can’t Stop Sneezing

You’ve battled allergies for years, so you have a routine down pat: Take your meds and reach for the tissues. But experts say that there are a few everyday lifestyle habits that may be aggravating your symptoms. Are you unknowingly triggering your own sneezes and sniffles? Read on to uncover five sneaky culprits.

Sneaky culprit No. 1: The fruit bowl.
People with grass or ragweed allergies may also suffer from oral allergy syndrome, where your body mistakes similar proteins in fruit as allergens, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. If your lips tingle or throat gets scratchy every time you bite into a peach, melon, apple or another fresh fruit, you may need to steer clear of that particular piece of produce.

Sneaky culprit No. 2: Potted plants.
Mold can grow in damp soil (or the damp rug beneath that ficus), which can irritate a mold allergy. Place your greenery on a hard surface to catch the water. You can also place pebbles on top of the soil to prevent mold from developing.

Sneaky culprit No. 3: A change in weather.
A spike or drop in the temperature can trigger an asthma attack, while a windy day can stir up sniffle-causing pollen. Before you head on a long hike post-storm, spend a little time in your backyard to see how you adjust to the conditions.

Sneaky culprit No. 4: The swimming pool.
Although it’s not an allergen, the chlorine in the pool’s water can irritate eyes and nose vessels. This can worsen your already itchy eyes or runny nose. You may want to steer clear of the pool right after it’s been treated with chlorine.

Sneaky culprit No. 5: You always wear your hair down.
Each time you go outside, pollen clings to your clothes and hair. To prevent those allergens from clinging to your mane all day, tuck your ponytail into a hat before heading out on that run. Also switch out of those clothes in your entryway or mud room, or do your best to shake off particles before stepping inside.

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8 All-natural Allergy Remedies

Now that spring has arrived, many families are reaching for the tissue box. After all, 30 percent of adults and 40 percent of children battle some form of allergies, according to the American Academy of Asthma & Immunology.

If you or your little ones are plagued by allergies, see your physician to get those symptoms under control. And in addition to over-the-counter and prescription medications, there are a few additional moves that can help ease the sniffles, sneezes and watery eyes. Consider these following strategies:

1. Try a saline rinse and spray. Rinsing the nasal passages with a saline solution helps flush out irritating allergens and dried mucus, which eases congestion. I recommend using a rinse before administering any nasal spray medication: It cleans off nasal membranes, so the medication is better absorbed.

If you make your own saline solution, it's essential to use sterile water. A type of bacteria in drinking water, which is harmless when consumed, can lead to life-threatening infections when introduced to the sinuses. Although these cases are extremely rare, play it safe and boil water before using it (including both tap and bottled water).

2. Find a healthy way to stress less. Stress increases levels of a hormone called cortisol, which can trigger inflammation in the body and worsen allergy symptoms. To stay calm and collected, encourage your family to exercise: It may strengthen an area of the brain that buffers against stress, according to researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health. Turn exercise into quality time by going on family walks and bike rides, and encourage massages for further relaxation.

3. Scale back on sugar. Some foods simply aren't helpful for allergies, like sugar and simple carbohydrates (think white flour/bread/rice, along with many processed goods). Eating a diet that's high in these foods spikes blood sugar and encourages bodily inflammation. In fact, researchers from Loma Linda University have shown that sugar can suppress the immune system's response.

To keep allergy symptoms in check, steer clear of added sugars whenever possible, and trade refined grains for nutritious whole grains.

4. Consider the right vitamins and nutrients. Certain nutrients and vitamins may also help you and your children find relief, as part of your diet and sometimes as a supplement. I recommend the following, but -- as with any supplement -- consult your own physician first:

  • Vitamin D This important vitamin has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. According to a study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, children with low levels of vitamin D were more likely to develop allergies than those who got enough of the nutrient. You can get vitamin D in salmon, along with most dairy products and cereals. Children may also take a supplement of 500 IU per day; adults can get up to 5,000 IU.
  • Vitamin A This nutrient has anti-inflammatory properties and is believed to help form mucus membranes (there are tons in your sinuses!), according to the National Institutes of Health. To get it in your diet, think green (broccoli, leafy greens) and orange (sweet potatoes, squash, apricots, carrots). Children may also take a 1,000 IU supplement per day, and adults can get up to 3,000 IU.
  • Pycnogenol Derived from a type of tree bark, this supplement has been shown to lessen allergy symptoms, shows a study in Phytotherapy Research. Children should consider taking 100 milligrams a day, and adults can get up to 300 mg.
  • Quercetin Researchers believe this compound may work as a natural antihistamine to block pesky allergic reactions, though more research is necessary to prove its effectiveness. It's easy to get a dose in a number of everyday foods, including apples, onions, sage, parsley, tea and dark berries (blueberries and blackberries). Check with your doctor first if you're interested in quercetin supplements for you or your child.
  • Probiotics These good bacteria encourage a healthy gut. Some studies on children have also shown that it helps manage allergies. Yogurt is full of probiotics; you can also consult your doctor about an appropriate OTC probiotic supplement.

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Are Germ-killing Products Harming Your Health?

Germ-killing toothpastes, antibacterial soaps, sanitizing deodorants, bacteria-banishing home cleaners. With all of these products on the market, you'd think everything in hand's reach is likely to make your family sick. But are all germ-killing products really protecting us in the long run? To find out, we interviewed Jessica Snyder Sachs, author of Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and Survival in a Bacterial World. Here, Sachs gives us the lowdown on which products are worth it … and which aren't.

Germ-killer Overkill
After making a career out of interviewing scientists and researchers about germs, Sachs is quick to advise that most germ-killing products on the market -- including nasal sanitizing gels, toothbrush sanitizers and handheld UV-light germ zappers -- aren't necessary and may be harmful. Sure, they kill germs. But the bigger question is: Do we want them to?

Some germs are harmless, and exposure actually strengthens our immune systems."When we lump all germs together and try to wipe them out of our lives, we end up with an increase in autoimmune diseases, allergies, asthma and other disorders," says Sachs."We've gone about trying to over-sanitize our lives, when it's really just a tiny percentage of germs that cause disease."

Sachs suggests that nasal sprays meant to wipe out all the bacteria in our noses, good and bad, is "freeing up the "parking spaces,' so to speak, for potentially dangerous bacteria to take up residence. We need to remember that our bodies are full of good bacteria that help keep out the bad ones," she says.

It's not just our bodies that may be suffering from sanitation overkill; germ-killing products may also compromise humans' ability to fight disease-causing germs in the long run. Sachs suggests checking the label of antibacterial soaps for triclosan, a chemical shown to work like an antibiotic, which she says is usually listed as an active ingredient.

According to Sachs, triclosan is ubiquitous in our environment now."It ends up getting flushed down drains and is found in sewage plants, rivers and lakes," she says."There is concern that the widespread use of these antibacterial products is going to fuel drug resistance -- a huge problem today -- without giving any real benefit."

So is there a place for germ-killing products in our lives?

Beneficial Germ Killers
Most experts agree that a few products do promote overall health by reducing the transmission of disease and infection."Studies have shown that good old-fashioned soap and water, as well as alcohol gels for sanitizing hands, reduce the incidence of picking up an infectious disease," says Sachs."The way most of us catch an infectious illness is through our hands: We inoculate ourselves when we touch our eyes and our noses with germ-covered hands. You can interrupt that transmission cycle just by using ordinary soap and water to wash your hands regularly." Here are the germ-killing products you should have on hand:

·         Sanitizing gels. When you're in a place where you don't have access to soap and water -- like when you're navigating a busy subway -- alcohol hand-sanitizing gels are an ideal (and healthy) solution.

·         Germ-free humidifiers. These are also generally regarded as a safe bet, and most experts suggest they're a worthy health investment."Humidifiers can become breeding grounds for mold and mildew, which are types of fungus that can trigger allergic reactions and asthma. That's why you want to be careful that your humidifier is clean and has a HEPA filter that will remove mold and mildew."

·         Kitchen cleaners. Another place where antibacterial products may have a place is in the kitchen, says Sachs."We've been using antibiotics in our livestock for years, and consequently a lot of our meat and eggs are contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria." If you handle raw eggs or meat, you may want to use an antibacterial kitchen cleanser to kill the germs left behind on kitchen surfaces. Sachs suggests vinegar may be a better bet: It's acidic enough to kill bacteria naturally -- without reinforcing the cycle that's contributing to creating drug-resistant bacteria.

The most important point to keep in mind, says Sachs, is that while we should reduce exposure to infection-causing germs, the vast majority of germs aren't harmful."We have to get away from the idea that all germs are bad," she says.

So don't go overboard ridding your house of germs and bacteria. Know that it's okay for kids to play in the dirt. And the next time the neighbor's dog licks your child's face, let it go. Just be sure to keep washing those hands.

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Secrets to Breathing Better With Allergies

Warmer weather triggers trees, flowers and grasses to bloom, beckons kids back outside and sets off seasonal allergy suffering for 40 percent of those kids. Pollens, which have been dormant all winter, are abundant from spring to fall. These irritants gang up with existing indoor allergens (such as dust mites, pet dander and mold) and bully your child's immune system, causing itchy, watery eyes, runny noses, sniffling, sneezing and coughing.

“While allergens are unavoidable, there are things you can do to reduce your child's exposure to them," says Dr. Rebecca Gruchalla, professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Texas Southwestern Center in Dallas.

Try these tricks for keeping allergens to a minimum:

1. Make plans based on pollen counts.
Plan indoor activities when outdoor pollen counts are highest – every day before 10 a.m., on windy days and after it rains. Check pollen.com for the daily allergy forecast in your area.

2. Control the spread of allergens.
After a day of fun outside, have the kids take showers, wash their hair and put on clean clothes before they're allowed to play in their rooms. You don't want them tracking pollen into their bedrooms since allergy symptoms are often worse at night.

3. Manage indoor air quality.
Keep windows closed during pollen season and crank up the air conditioning to help filter the air in your home. An indoor air temperature between 68 F and 72 F inhibits mold and dust mite growth and helps the indoor humidity level stay at an ideal 30 to 40 percent.

4. Keep bedding healthy.
Dress your child's bed using linens made of cotton or synthetic materials as opposed to bedding filled with feather or down, which can trap moisture and invite dust mites to spread. Dust mites produce a protein that can irritate the nasal passage and cause sneezing and a runny nose. To get rid of them, wash your child's sheets once a week. Wash the comforter, mattress pad and blankets once a month. And never hang linens or clothes to dry outside, where they can gather pollen. 

5. Clean stuffed animals and toys.
Only buy washable stuffed animals and throw them in the laundry with the bedsheets every week. And when they're not being loved, store stuffed animals -- and all toys -- in sealed, dust-free plastic containers.

6. Use allergen-resistant covers.
Wrap the mattress, box spring and pillows in allergen-resistant covers to reduce your child's exposure to dust mites by as much as 80 percent.

7. Keep floors free of irritants.
Vacuum the floors in kids' rooms twice a week using a cyclonic machine or one outfitted with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Keep kids out of the bedroom for at least 30 minutes afterward, since vacuuming kicks up allergen-filled dust that can irritate allergies.

8. Move moisture out of the bathroom.
Bathrooms tend to accumulate water around the shower, tub and sink areas, keeping the room moist and susceptible to mold growth. Control moisture by making sure wet towels and clothes are hanging so they're able to dry. After showers, allow the curtain or door to air-dry before pulling it closed. And to keep air flowing and remove moisture, leave a fan on after showers and baths.

9. Prevent pet allergens.
Pets produce more allergens than the great outdoors. Don't let your furry friends into the kids' rooms. Wash and brush Fido -- outside -- once a week to decrease the dander inside.

10. Equip bedroom with a HEPA air filter.
If your child has severe allergies, consider putting a HEPA air filter in the bedroom. Check the CADR (Clean Air Delivery Rate) label, which indicates the size of room it's best for.

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