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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Stress-busting Walking Workout

Walking is a step in the right direction for your health -- and it's the perfect form of exercise for busy moms. You can walk anywhere, anytime: Just put on your sneakers and head out the door."When you walk at a brisk pace, the body produces feel-good hormones called endorphins. This automatically improves your mood and decreases stress," says Toronto-based personal trainer Barb Gormley.

With all the time you spend caring for your whole family, taking less than a half-hour of fresh-air care for yourself will help you clear your mind so you can tackle your day. Read on to find out how every step you take improves your health and then try our easy, four-week walking workout plan to beat stress.

Walking Benefit: A Healthier Heart
According to a recent study of over 39,000 women published by the American Heart Association, those who walked for two or more hours per week had a 30 percent reduced risk of stroke than those who did not walk at all.

Walking Benefit: Better Memory
Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that older men who walked less than 1/4 mile each day had almost twice the risk of dementia compared to those who walked more than 2 miles.

Walking Benefit: A Slim Waistline
In one new study of over 18,400 premenopausal women, researchers from Harvard School of Public Heath found that those who made even small increases in the amount of time they spend walking briskly or biking every day decreased their risk of gaining weight.

Walking Benefit: A Better Mood
Anyone who regularly hits the treadmill will report a boost of good feelings post-workout, but a recent study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise uses science to prove it. Researchers monitored participants diagnosed with depression as they either walked on a treadmill for 30 minutes or sat and rested quietly. Those who walked reported more feelings of well-being and more energy than those who rested.

Easy 4-week Walking Plan
Our easy walking plan will improve your health and help you feel less frazzled -- in just a few minutes per day."The key to improving your fitness level, burning calories and zapping stress is to walk regularly and to include one rest day per week," says Gormley.

Walk each day for the length of time suggested below. Keep your chest lifted, and look toward the horizon (not down at your feet). Pump or briskly swing your arms at your sides to boost your calorie burn. "You'll know you've walked at the right intensity if you feel energized, not exhausted, a few minutes after you complete your workout," says Gormley. Grab a friend, your dog or your MP3 player to keep motivated and step to it!

Week 1: Build a habit.
The first week is all about getting used to exercising regularly, so consistency is key.

Monday: 10 minutes
Tuesday: 15 minutes
Wednesday: 10 minutes
Thursday: 15 minutes
Friday: 10 minutes
Saturday: 20 minutes
Sunday: rest day

Weekly total: 80 minutes

Week 2: Walk for longer.
Keep up the good work! This week, you'll increase the length of time you walk by five or 10 minutes per day.

Monday: 15 minutes
Tuesday: 20 minutes
Wednesday: 15 minutes
Thursday: 20 minutes
Friday: 15 minutes
Saturday: 30 minutes
Sunday: rest day

Weekly total: 115 minutes

Week 3: Boost calorie burn.
Now you're a regular walker. Increase your pace slightly to blast more calories.

Monday: 20 minutes
Tuesday: 25 minutes
Wednesday: 20 minutes
Thursday: 25 minutes
Friday: 20 minutes
Saturday: 35 minutes
Sunday: rest day

Weekly total: 145 minutes

Week 4: Hit some hills.
Maintain the slightly faster pace, and include two hill workouts to build muscle and burn even more calories.

Monday: 20 minutes (include a short, gentle hill)
Tuesday: 25 minutes
Wednesday: 20 minutes (include a short, gentle hill)
Thursday: 25 minutes
Friday: 20 minutes
Saturday: 35 minutes
Sunday: rest day

Weekly total: 145 minutes

Congrats! You've nearly doubled your weekly walking time in just four weeks. Do your best to keep it up: You've reached a routine daily activity level that will help you to maintain a healthier heart, slimmer waistline, improved memory and an upbeat mood.

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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 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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How to Tell a Cold from the Flu

Your little one is coughing, sneezing and asking for comfort. How can you tell a cold from the flu? Knowing the difference between the two is important for any parent.

Although colds and the flu are both respiratory illnesses, they're caused by different types of viruses. The problem is that colds and the flu share symptoms, like coughing and sneezing. But I've listed a few ways to distinguish between the two. Keep in mind that every child is different. If you're worried about him or her, don't hesitate to call your pediatrician.

How can I tell if it's a cold? 
Colds are generally milder than the flu and usually last for about a week. Children typically develop a sore throat. The cold is more likely to cause sinus symptoms -- such as a runny nose, sniffling and sneezing -- followed by a cough. Kids can also present a low-grade fever, which is usually around 100 F. The symptoms of the flu also generally last longer -- up to two weeks -- than the symptoms of a cold, which usually last three to seven days.

How can I tell if it's the flu? 
More severe than a cold, flu symptoms tend to come on quickly: Your child can feel fine one day and horrible the next. The main symptom of the flu, however, is a fever. Kids can get a high-grade fever of up to 106 F. (Click here to learn more about when to call the doctor for a fever.) Other telltale signs include a dry cough, body aches and an overall feeling of fatigue.

What's the best way to treat the viruses? 
If your child has the flu, and she or someone in your home has a compromised immune system -- an infant, a senior citizen, or someone with a chronic illness -- call your pediatrician right away. Your doctor will want to prescribe an antiviral medication, which is most effective when taken 48 hours after onset. This can help prevent the spread of the flu, which can cause potentially dangerous complications, like pneumonia.

Otherwise, you can treat both illnesses the same way: Make sure that your child gets plenty of rest and fluids. You can use a fever-reducing medication, like acetaminophen, to bring down his or her temperature, as well as OTC meds to relieve symptoms.

If your child experiences respiratory problems and has trouble breathing, has a fever that lasts more than three days, or doesn't seem to be getting better with time, call your doctor. You want to make sure that he didn't develop a complication, such as pneumonia or a sinus or ear infection.

At what point is it necessary to call a doctor when my child is not feeling well?

When your little one is sniffling and sneezing, it's sometimes hard to know what to do. While most bugs clear up on their own, sometimes an illness can turn into something more serious. Here are four red-flag scenarios in which you should call the doctor:

If your child has: a high fever. For infants, it's a fever above 100.4 F.  For children over 1 year, it's a fever above 103 F, lasting longer than three days. 

If your child has: an earache, or drainage from the ear. This could be an ear infection.

If your child has: a painful sore throat accompanied by fever. This could be strep throat, which a pediatrician can diagnose with a throat culture and prescribe antibiotics.

If your child shows: flu symptoms -- fever, body aches, cough, runny nose or congestion. The doctor might prescribe an antiviral medication to reduce the severity and duration of the virus. But you must act quickly -- the medication only works within the first 48 hours of the illness.