Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Medicine technique - get it checked

Following on from my post on 6th May 2014 about asthma inhaler technique…

In the last week, a new US report had revealed that a significant number of people with asthma don't receive adequate training on how best to use an inhaler and allergy sufferers don't know how to use their adrenaline pens (Epipen or Jext) properly. Asthma UK and Allergy UK are calling for improved training.

The research is due to be published in January 2015 in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. The researchers found that common problems with adrenaline pens were not pressing them hard enough or letting go too early (before the required 10 seconds had passed). With inhalers, most people received a less powerful dose than they needed, potentially meaning their breathing would continue to worsen.

If you suffer from any medical condition (either regularly or intermittently), it's essential that you make sure you know how to use your medicines properly - whether it's an asthma inhaler, adrenaline pen or even eye drops for glaucoma. Ask your pharmacist for advice or, even better, a practical demonstration.

Visit Asthma UK's website (click here) for essential demonstrations on inhaler technique, click here for advice on using Epipens and here for Jext advice.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Keeping allergic teens (and pre-teens) safe

Most people take eating out for granted. But for food allergy sufferers, a seemingly simple restaurant meal or takeaway can be a game of Russian roulette. It's not surprising that the fear of having a severe allergic reaction leads many people with a food allergy to eat only home-cooked meals. Hopefully though, this is set to change.

Since 13th December 2014, new EU regulations mean that food outlets have to provide allergen information on menus, chalkboards or information packs - and staff must be able to supply details about the ingredients in the foods they sell.  Fourteen allergens now have to be listed within the ingredients section and must be highlighted in some way (e.g. in bold), rather than having a separate allergen warning box.

Understandable this is causing some concern within the catering industry, as supplying the allergen information and, most importantly, keeping it up to date is no straightforward task. Suppliers change and menus vary, not to mention the extra staff training required.

As the mother of an 11 year old with nut allergy, I am hoping these new regulations will give me some peace of mind as my son steps out on his own. He is at an age where he wants to go out and about with the same freedom as his friends. However, there is always a nagging 'what if' feeling at the back of my mind. 

Even with the new rules in place, ultimately he still has to remember to read the menu carefully and/or ask whether the restaurant's chocolate ice cream, for example, contains peanut or pecan (the two nuts he is allergic to). And he also needs to carry his allergy medicines with him at all times (just in case).

As children reach the teenage years, there is a fine line between encouraging independence and keeping them safe. I don't want to be a neurotic mother or leave him feeling over-anxious. My son has been aware of the dangers since he was diagnosed at the age of four, and we have drummed into him the importance of checking the food he is about to eat. Fortunately, he hasn't had a food-related allergic reaction since he was diagnosed and has never had a severe reaction. But teenagers (and pre-teens) often feel under pressure to conform or take risks. I feel that he was safer at primary school, when I knew all of his friends and their mothers were aware of his allergy. When he went to parties, the food was always nut free. Now there's no guarantee.

So every so often, when he is about to leave the house, I remind him of the basic rules to follow:

1. Carry his medicines (anti-histamine and adrenaline pens) with him at all times - it doesn't matter whether he is out for the day or just popping to the park. It's not worth taking the risk. Rather than keeping his medicines loose in his pocket or school bag, he carries them in a medicine bag from YellowCross.

2. Practise using his adrenaline pens (I have a trainer dummy pen from the manufacturer).

3. Alert his friends and their parents to his allergy (without worrying them unnecessary). When he has a sleepover, for example, I would prefer it if the family doesn't have any peanut butter on the table at breakfast time.

4. Ensure he wears his allergy ID jewellery at all times, just in case we are not there in an emergency. My son wears his MedicAlert sports band on his wrist every day - even when he is swimming or playing sport. It's become a part of him and he even sleeps with it on. 

If you have a child with an allergy, you will want to keep them safe, healthy and independent. My book Allergies: A Parents' Guide (published by Need2Know Books) contains essential background information and practical advice. 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Our pill-popping nation

The latest Health Survey for England, published today, reveals that 50% of women and 43% of men in England take prescription medicines on a regular basis. In 2013, over one billion prescription items were dispensed by community pharmacists in England. That's an average of 2.7 million items every day and 18.7 prescription items per person in England in 2013. The cost to the NHS in 2013 exceeded £15 billion.

Twenty-two percent of men and 24% of women in the survey reported that they had taken at least three prescribed medicines in the last week. Cholesterol-lowering statins, blood pressure medicines, painkillers and anti-depressants were amongst the most commonly prescribed drugs.

In England, more than 15 million people currently have a long-term condition, which is placing a significant burden on health, welfare and social services. According to the Department of Health, this figure is set to increase over the next 10 years, with rising numbers of people suffering from three or more conditions at once. And as the population ages, the problem is likely to get worse.

If you look at some of the medicines being prescribed in large quantities - e.g. statins and blood pressure pills - these are for conditions that are often related to lifestyle choices. According to the Office for National Statistics, nearly one in four deaths - more than 100,000 every year - are potentially avoidable.

It's easy to blame the government, political leaders and healthcare system for the state of the nation's health. But should we also be doing more as individuals?

In November 2014, The Richmond Group of Charities (including the British Heart Foundation, Diabetes UK and Breakthrough Breast Cancer) highlighted that taking action to tackle common risk factors (e.g. smoking, inactivity, unhealthy diet and alcohol) would drastically reduce the number of people affected by conditions such as heart disease, cancer, lung disease and diabetes.

According to the Richmond Group of Charities, as individuals we can try to adopt healthy behaviours to protect and improve our wellbeing - and even if we are diagnosed with a health condition, we can still take steps to improve our quality of life and try to prevent our health spiralling downhill even further.

The facts gathered by The Richmond Group of Charities speak for themselves:

  • 75% of cardiovascular disease is preventable
  • 80% of strokes are preventable
  • Up to 30% of Alzheimer's disease cases are attributable to modifiable risk factors
  • If every woman in the UK was regularly physically active, 9,000 fewer women would develop breast cancer each year
  • Up to half of all cancers could be prevented by changes in lifestyle behaviours.

So should we all be taking a more preventative approach? Should we be looking at keeping ourselves fitter and healthier to avoid taking medicines in the long-term? Or should we just accept that, at some point, we will join the rest of the pill-popping nation.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Is it time to ditch your morning juice?

Fruit juices and blended smoothies continue to be a popular health craze. Yet these are not as healthy as you may think.

Many people have a juice or smoothie with their breakfast to give themselves a nutrient boost for the day ahead. But the morning is a key time of day to take medicines, particularly for those on daily long-term medication. And taking certain medicines with fruit juice could be hazardous to your health, by increasing or decreasing the amount of medicine entering your bloodstream.

Last month, an article in The Pharmaceutical Journal highlighted interactions between fruit juice and common medicines.  There's evidence that grapefruit juice in particular can interact with a range of medicines, including some blood pressure pills and statins. Other juices, including apple, orange and cranberry, may also pose problems. Patients taking warfarin (a commonly prescribed blood thinning drug) are advised to avoid drinking cranberry juice unless the health benefits are considered to outweigh the risks. If they do have a regular intake of cranberry juice or cranberry products, they should be monitored carefully to make sure the warfarin is working and their blood is clotting properly.

If you're worried about fruit juice interacting with any of your medicines, speak to your pharmacist. And if you are on regular medication, maybe it's time to switch to taking your medicines with a glass of water instead (unless otherwise advised).

According to the British Soft Drinks Association's 2014 'UK Soft Drinks Report', sales of 100% fruit juices and smoothies are actually in decline. Carbonates remain the largest soft drinks sector (45%) followed by dilutables (22%), bottled water (16%), still and juice drinks (£10%) and fruit juice (just 7%). Bottled water was the fastest-growing soft drinks category in 2013, as 'consumers looked for hydration without calories'.

Currently, a 150ml glass of unsweetened fruit juice counts towards our 'five a day'. But in November 2014, campaign group Action on Sugar warned that these drinks could be doing more harm than good, contributing to tooth decay, obesity and type-2 diabetes. Many children's juices contain at least six teaspoons of sugar and come in cartons larger than the recommended size.

Following the Action on Sugar report, the British Dental Health Foundation warned that fruit smoothies contain very high levels of sugar and acid and can damage teeth, leading to tooth decay and dental erosion. Every time you sip on a fruit smoothie, your teeth are placed under acid attack for up to an hour. It's estimated that around one in three adults in England has tooth decay, which is often triggered by overexposure to sugary food and drink. Tooth decay is currently the most common reason for children in the UK to be admitted to hospital.

In August 2013, research published in the British Medical Journal revealed that nurses who ate whole fruits (e.g. blueberries, grapes and apples) were at a lower risk of developing type-2 diabetes, while those who drank fruit juice were at an increased risk. 

If research continues to discovers that fruit juices and smoothies are not necessarily the healthiest option, perhaps it's time to rethink your preferred breakfast drink.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Please stop the heart status - and do something more educational

Over the last few days, my Facebook newsfeed has been filled with friends posting hearts in all manner of colours and sizes on their status - or, in some cases, on other people's Facebook walls.


Because someone somewhere thinks that this helps to raise awareness of breast cancer - and they started the whole 'game' rolling.

Apparently, the private message being sent through Facebook is:

"I nominate you for the 'Most loving and prettiest Mum Award'. You must send to 12 mums. 'You're a beautiful mum,doing a great job and you're so loved!' Hit 12 mums who put their kids first. xx. 

Without replying to this message, put a heart on your wall, no comment, just a heart. Next, post a heart on the wall of the person who sent you this message. Then send this message to all of your women friends, only women. 

If anyone asks why your wall has so many hearts on it - do not tell them. This is only for women because it is breast cancer research week. One small act of solidarity. Xxx"

In the past, I have also noticed Facebook friends posting silly obscure statements, sharing the colour of their underwear or marital status, or changing their profile picture, all with the intention of raising awareness of breast cancer.

Why do I have a problem with this?

1. It's just a heart (or two in some cases). It isn't accompanied by any educational facts, any statistics, any advice, not even a mention of breast cancer.
A couple of friends admitted to me today that they had no idea why people were posting a heart on Facebook - so how does that raise awareness of anything?

2. There probably isn't anyone who doesn't know breast cancer exists. Education is awareness, not hearts on Facebook statuses, as there's a lot of myth-busting to do.

3. Breast cancer affects people of all ages, with or without kids, so has nothing to do with motherhood - and definitely nothing to do with being a good mum or not.

4. Breast cancer is not just a woman's disease. True, it's rare in men, but breast cancer still strikes 350 men every year in the UK. Men should be checking themselves regularly, just as women do. According to Cancer Research UK, most cases are diagnosed in men between the ages of 60 and 70. In fact, I have a male cousin in the USA who has the BRCA gene and was diagnosed three years ago with breast cancer. He had a double mastectomy and is now cancer free.

5. Breast cancer shouldn't be a secret issue - it has an impact on all friends and family members (children, partners, siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins etc …). It shouldn't be ignored and it certainly shouldn't be a taboo subject.

6. Breast cancer shouldn't be treated as a game. Every year, nearly 55,000 people are diagnosed with the disease in the UK, that's equivalent to one person every 10 minutes. It's no laughing matter.

7. If people want to raise awareness of any health issue by posting a picture on their Facebook status, at least also give people some facts, some advice and/or some statistics, like how to spot the signs, where to seek help and the name of the relevant charities and organisations.

My response?
This morning I posted my own Facebook status raising awareness of breast cancer:

"Every year, nearly 55,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK, that's equivalent to one person every 10 minutes. Breast cancer is rare in men, with only 350 cases being diagnosed annually. But it's certainly not just a woman's disease. Men should do regular checks too."

My challenge

This morning I also set myself a challenge. Whenever there is a health awareness day/week/month in the UK and I have access to Facebook, I plan to give my Facebook friends some relevant educational facts.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Laxative use and abuse

Beat - the UK's leading eating disorder charity - recently expressed growing concern at the numbers of people admitting that they have been able to obtain unregulated amounts of laxatives in a bid to lose weight. According to the charity, over 80% of people surveyed over the last five years admitted to taking dangerous amounts of laxatives during the struggle with an eating disorder. Earlier this month, BBC Watchdog sent a group of 14-year-olds into 25 high street stores to buy stimulant laxatives. The teenagers weren't stopped or questioned by staff, despite buying a minimum of 60 tablets each time.

Laxative abuse and misuse
Currently, laxatives can be bought from supermarkets, pharmacies and other online retailers for the short-term relief of constipation. But they are commonly abused, as people mistakenly believe that the medicines will help them lose weight. Rather than helping the body expel food, fat and calories after binge-eating, laxatives just cause the loss of water, indigestible fibre, minerals and electrolytes from the bowels.

Taking laxatives every day or in large quantities can be harmful. Laxative abuse can trigger diarrhoea, intestinal obstruction (when the bowel becomes blocked), dehydration and an imbalance of salts and minerals in the body that can lead to kidney failure. It can also damage the liver and potentially damage the heart.

Even when used legitimately, laxatives aren't suitable for everyone and aren't recommended for children, unless advised by a doctor. Some types of laxatives also aren't safe if you have certain medical conditions (e.g. Crohn's or ulcerative colitis) and may interact with other medication.

Safe laxative use
If you suffer from constipation, or are prone to it, lifestyle changes may help - drinking plenty of water, eating fibre-rich foods and taking regular exercise. But according to NHS Choices, if this isn't effective, you could try bulk-forming laxatives (e.g. isphagula husk) initially. These work like fibre-rich foods in your diet by increasing the bulk of your stools (faeces), so they are easier to push out. Bulk-forming laxatives start working after about two to three days.

If your stools are still hard, you could then try an osmotic laxative (e.g. lactulose) instead - or with - a bulk-forming laxative. These make stools softer and easier to pass by increasing the amount of water in your bowels. If your stools are soft but difficult to pass, try a stimulant laxative (e.g. bisacodyl, senna) to speed up the movement of your bowels, again with or without a bulk-forming laxative.

However, if you are often constipated, despite making appropriate lifestyle changes, or laxatives aren't effective after a week, you should see your GP to discuss your symptoms.

Sales restrictions
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) recently issued a statement saying that while most patients use laxatives safely, it's recognised that some people misuse or abuse these commonly used medicines. A review of the current patient information is taking place, with recommendations that stronger warnings should be added to the packaging and leaflets.

Beat would like to see the following restrictions on laxative sales:
1. Minimum purchase age of 16
2. Maximum pack size (suggesting blister packs of no more than 10)
3. Sales restricted to pharmacies and not sold in general retail outlets
4. Packs not displayed in self-service areas, but kept behind the sales counter
5. Warning labels on the packs informing people that 'This is not a weight loss product'.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Take up the Stoptober Challenge

On Wednesday 1st October, take up the challenge to give up smoking for 28 days with the Department of Health's Stoptober Challenge. Over 150,000 people are expected to kick their smoking habit during the month of October this year.

Research shows that stopping smoking for just 28 days can extend your life by up to one week if you remain smoke-free. And those who stop smoking for 28 days are five times more likely to stay smoke-free for good.

The only way to find out if the Stoptober Challenge works for you is to give it a go. Click here to register and get started.

Quitting smoking is the best thing you can do for your health, your family and your finances. But while most smokers know the risks, they still struggle to give up in the long-term. Nicotine cravings are one of the biggest obstacles to quitting for good.

You can seek the help of your local pharmacist for one-to-one support and advice on smoking cessation medicines to combat cravings.  All licensed smoking cessation products can help you stop smoking. In fact, using nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) can double your chances of quitting, but it's important that you choose the right products for you (gum, patches, lozenges, inhalators, nasal or mouth sprays or oral strips and micro tabs). Some types of NRT are designed to help you cut down on smoking, rather than stop all in one go. You will need to speak to the pharmacist about the right strength for you and, if you are a heavy smoker, about combination therapy (where you use two types of NRT together e.g. patches and gum).

GP surgeries in crisis

According to the Royal College of GPs (RCGP), waiting times to see a GP are now a national crisis. The latest predictions from the RCGP show that on 60 million occasions over the next year, patients will have to wait a week or longer to see their GP or practice nurse.

In the latest poll commissioned by the RCGP, two-thirds of those surveyed said that they worry that GP workloads are a threat to the standard of care that GPs can provide to their patients. Only 23% think that there are enough GPs to deal with Britain's changing and growing population, particularly with more and more people now living longer, often with multiple or complex health problems.

The RCGP and the National Association for Patient Participation have launched the campaign Put patients first: Back general practice in a bid to increase the share of the NHS budget for general practice to 11% by 2017. It's hoped that the extra investment will expand the GP workforce, especially in deprived or under-doctored areas.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Public Health England recently launched a new winter health campaign, called Treat Yourself Better with Pharmacist Advice, to encourage people to seek advice from their pharmacist before going directly to their GP. It is hoped that this will help to free up GP appointments for people who really need them. Research carried out to support the Treat Yourself Better campaign found that only one in five adults make use of their local pharmacist for winter ailments. Yet people wait on average less than five minutes to speak to a local pharmacist about winter ailments, compared with a 3.5 day wait to get a GP appointment, with one in five people waiting at least seven days.

The Treat Yourself Better campaign found that many people also underestimate the normal duration of colds and flu, visiting their GP too early in the infection. Ninety percent expect a cough to last on average only eight days, when in fact it can last for up to three weeks. And 80% expect flu symptoms to last only 10 days, when two weeks in the normal duration.

For more details about the Treat Yourself Better campaign, click here. Find out how you can treat colds and flu yourself, check your symptoms and watch out for warning signs that indicate you may need to see your GP.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Flu - it really is a killer!

This week, I have experienced what it's like to have flu. Not a bad 'man-flu' cold or a chest or sinus infection that makes me feel vile. No, this seems to be the genuine article (although no guarantee without a swab!) and something I haven't had for many many years. 

My waking temperature has been at a minimum of 38.5 degrees celsius for four days now - but is finally showing signs of abating (thanks to regaining my appetite enough to eat and take ibuprofen). I've had the shivers, the shakes and the sweats. Then there's the dry chesty cough, aching muscles, dodgy tummy, difficulty sleeping and exhaustion. My sheets and pyjamas have been dripping for days.

But the good news is that I think I am coming through it … and in one piece. And yes, I know I should be taking it easy, but there's only so much resting I can do.

Over the last day or so, I have been told by my loved ones to call the GP. But what exactly is my GP going to do? Pronounce that I have flu? Tell me I have a viral infection? He/she is certainly not going to be prescribing antibiotics, as these won't help. And I wouldn't want to go into the GP surgery, in case I pass my germs to everyone else.

Plus, any advice that my GP can offer I should already know…
  • Take paracetamol at full dose
  • Take ibuprofen at full dose (but only after food)
  • Drink plenty of fluids (especially warm drinks)
  • Eat whenever I feel hungry - stick to simple things like toast
  • Avoid dairy products if I am chesty
  • Sponge myself with a warm/cool flannel to lower my temperature - I resorted to a cool shower too
  • Keep warm (but not too warm)
  • Stick myself in quarantine (until my kids decided to keep checking up on me to make sure I am still alive - just as well they both went back to school today)
  • Gaze aimlessly at mindless TV programmes to pass the day
  • Don't do anything too taxing - although I seem to have ignored that one today.
And watch out for key signs that complications are developing - chest pain, breathing difficulties, an unexplained rash, coughing up blood, temperature that doesn't drop with paracetamol and/or ibuprofen etc. Nothing to worry about so far … but I am using my asthma inhalers just in case.

Apparently flu can last for seven to 10 days, so I could have at least another three days to go (hopefully not, as I have deadlines looming). At least I am now well enough to write, even if I can't concentrate long enough to work. And on a positive note, flu is great for weight loss and reading time. Not that I would recommend it, of course!

Monday, 14 July 2014

Taking risks with medicines

Following on from my post on 25th June 2014 about the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's report into medicines compliance, survey results have now been released revealing that many people aren't taking their medicines as directed.

New research, commissioned by Pharmacy Voice, shows that a quarter of people surveyed had deliberately not followed instructions about a course of treatment prescribed by their doctor, while only a fifth always completed a course of medicine. In the survey, a quarter of people believed that a course of treatment doesn't need to be followed rigidly to get better, and 45 percent said they trust their body telling them they feel better more than they trust prescription medicines. One in seven people also said they have used out-of-date medicines and one in 20 have even used medicines that have been prescribed to family or friends.

Obviously not taking a full course of any medicine can lead to health problems, such as delayed recovery. But stopping certain medicines without medical advice can also cause serious side effects. Corticosteroid tablets, for example, should be stopped only by gradually reducing the dose under the guidance of a doctor or nurse. If you stop them suddenly, this can leave you more prone to infections. Some anti-depressants can cause severe withdrawal symptoms if you stop them abruptly, rather than reducing them slowly over a four-week period.

There is also particular concern over people not finishing courses of antibiotics (see my last blog post). The danger is that the infection will recur and will be much harder to treat when it does. In addition, the surviving bacteria may become resistant to the antibiotics and spread to other people.

The Pharmacy Voice research also highlighted that one in 10 people take more than the recommended dose and a quarter don't always measure out liquid medicines. This reminds me of several friends who were swigging Gaviscon straight from the bottle to ease their heartburn during their pregnancies!

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Help to ease winter health pressures

A report this week by the All-Party Parliamentary Group of Primary Care and Public Health highlights the role of community pharmacies in managing winter ailments. The report focuses on the increasing pressure put on hospital A&E departments and GP practices during the winter months, and why it's important that people know the differences between 'urgent' and 'non-urgent' minor health issues. 

The report suggests that we - the public - should be going to our pharmacist before our GP when we are suffering from a cold or flu, unless we think it's a medical emergency. This is because weather-related health conditions, such as respiratory problems, are more common during the winter, increasing the pressure on A&E departments.  The cold and flu season also results in more people seeking medical advice from their GP, whether it's simply for reassurance or antibiotics, which leads to more pressure on the healthcare system as a whole.

Every year, winter health campaigns focus on the inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics and the importance of 'self care'. This year's Self Care Week, which is run by the Self Care Forum, takes place from 17th to 23rd November 2014, with the theme 'Self Care for Life - Be Healthy this Winter'.

But many people find it difficult to assess when their symptoms are 'urgent' or 'non-urgent'. And I include myself in this. 

  • When should we worry about an annoying cough that keeps us awake or a persistent sore throat that just won't disappear? 
  • Is it normal to be so congested that your face hurts or you get a seasick feeling every time you move? 
  • Should we be coughing up green or brown phlegm?
  • How long should our cough or cold last before we need to see our GP? 
Knowing more about our symptoms - and dealing with them without the need for antibiotics - doesn't just help us as individuals, but also helps to reduce the national (or rather international) crisis of bacterial resistance. Earlier today, the Prime Minister David Cameron warned about the growing threat of antibiotic resistance: there is a continual rise in drug-resistant bacterial strains, no new classes of antibiotics have been developed for more than 25 years and there is still an overuse of antibiotics globally. 

So what should we be doing? 
  • Firstly, remember that antibiotics won't help a cold or flu as they kill bacteria, not viruses. So we don't need to ask for them at the first sign of a sneeze or sniffle.
  • Secondly, if we are prescribed them, this should be because our GP thinks we already have a bacterial infection or that we are at an increased risk of one. 
  • Thirdly, if we do take antibiotics, it's vital that we finish the full course, take the antibiotics at regular intervals during the day (as prescribed) and don't skip any doses. 
Ultimately, we need to try self-help measures for our cold, cough or sore throat first, rather than simply seeing our GP for antibiotics - and this is where pharmacy advice comes in. Pharmacies aren't just there to sell us cough and cold remedies (although these can often help to relieve our symptoms).  Pharmacists and pharmacy staff are trained to advise us about self-help measures too and tell us when we really do need to see our GP. 

The Proprietary Association of Great Britain (PAGB) has a great website called Treat Yourself Better, where you can find out how to treat coughs, colds and sore throats, rather than resorting to antibiotics.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Keep an eye on the pollen count

My hayfever is flaring up today. This isn't surprising as, according to the Met Office, the pollen count is currently high in many parts of the UK. You can check the pollen forecast here on the Met Office website.

Many people think hayfever is just a minor problem. But over the weekend, I discovered that many of my friends and family agree that troublesome hayfever symptoms can ruin a hot summer. While people without hayfever can enjoy outdoor activities without a worry, especially in the evenings when pollen levels are highest, those with hayfever often prefer to spend their time in the stuffy indoors, just to keep their symptoms at bay. At this time of year, there's an ongoing argument in many households around the country - windows open or windows closed?! It certainly happens in our house.

A recent report - the British Airborne Allergy Report - commissioned by air purification specialists Fellowes, in association with charity Allergy UK, revealed that hayfever is one of the most debilitating allergies, especially in children. Two-thirds of parents whose children suffer from hayfever, claim their youngsters' childhoods have been damaged as a result. One in eight parents say symptoms have made their child's life a misery or stopped them going to school, while one in 10 struggle to leave the house during the summer months. Another nine percent say airborne allergies, like hayfever, have stopped their children pursuing hobbies and six percent regularly have to miss sports.

I notice this with my children - at this time of year, their noses are constantly full, their eyes are puffy and they are more tired than usual. I am sure this affects their concentration at school - not ideal as we are coming up to school exams for the eldest.

Don't get me wrong - I love a warm summer and 'al fresco' living. But with pollen levels at their highest  at the moment, I have to admit that I am looking forward to the autumn. Although then we get the cold and flu season - I guess we can't win!

Cancer - spotting the signs

According to research published last Wednesday in the British Journal of Cancer, around 35% of cancer patients waited too long to see their doctor about bleeding from their bottom, which is a possible sign of bowel cancer. Yet more than 90% of people made an appointment to see a doctor within three months if they had blood in their urine. Worrying, more than one in five cancer patients waited more than three months before visiting a doctor about their symptoms.

The earlier cancer is diagnosed, the higher the chances of survival. According to Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK's director of early diagnosis, it's important that everyone is aware of the wide range of cancer symptoms and has the confidence to tell their doctor.

So what symptoms should you be looking out for?

First of all, it's essential to know your own body and spot anything that seems out of the ordinary for you. The 'for you' part is the key as everyone is different. If you notice any persistent or unexplained changes, see your doctor. Don't assume that any changes are simply a sign of getting older or, in the case of women, associated with the menopause.

Secondly, there are over 200 types of cancer that can cause many different symptoms. Cancer Research UK have listed the most important ones here.

And don't forget if you can't get an appointment with your doctor straight away, you can always ask a pharmacist for advice too.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Reputable health information sources

Today, a US study reveals that 90% of Wikipedia medical entries are inaccurate. The researchers stress that people shouldn't be using the online encyclopaedia to diagnose their symptoms.

This comes as no surprise - and it's certainly not news. Many surveys over the years have revealed that too many people get inaccurate health information from the internet, family and friends, rather than go to their GP or another healthcare professional.

Wikipedia is hugely popular but it lets users create, delete and edit entries, without having any specialist knowledge themselves. This applies to all subjects, from finance to building materials, but it's particularly worrying when someone is relying on this knowledge to diagnose (and possible manage) a health condition.

So where should you get your health information from?

1. Your GP
There's no doubt that if you are experiencing severe or worsening symptoms, your first port of call should be your GP. There's nothing better than a proper physical examination to check for underlying causes or the chance to be referred for further tests or a hospital consultation. If you can't get an appointment with your GP straight away, try the practice nurse.

2. Your pharmacist
If your symptoms are relatively minor, you could ask a pharmacist for advice. You may be recommended some over-the-counter medicines, given practical suggestions or referred to your GP, optometrist, dentist etc, depending on the nature of the problem. Most pharmacies have a confidential area or consultation room if you want to speak in private.

3. The internet
You shouldn't use the internet for diagnosis, but heading to the right online sources can give you accurate information once you have already been diagnosed. NHS Choices and charities such as Diabetes UK, British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research UK have a wealth of information on their websites. There aren't many medical conditions or symptoms that won't be covered by one of the UK charities. If you require nutrition advice, check out the British Nutrition Foundation. Visit the National Pharmacy Associations' Ask the Pharmacist section for information on medicines and pharmacies. Make sure you use UK websites, as information about diagnosis and treatments varies from country to country. And always check the dates of publication on the websites to make sure the information is up to date.

4. Self-help groups
If you have been diagnosed with a medical condition like arthritis, diabetes or heart disease, you may find there is a support group in your local area. Generally these gatherings are for practical support and advice, but sometimes they hold talks by healthcare professionals or promote workshops to help you manage your symptoms more effectively. Call your GP surgery to check whether there is a support group in your local area, or try the website of the charity that is most relevant to your symptoms.

5. Family & friends
Let's face it, most of us have asked advice from those closest to us when we are struggling with symptoms. We shouldn't rely on family and friends for a diagnosis or health information (unless they are medically qualified). But there's nothing like practical support and self-help tips from people who share, or have shared, our experiences (just as with local self-help groups). It's important to be open about your symptoms and medical conditions as much as possible, as you may find that a friend of a friend or a relative of a relative knows exactly what you are going through and can provide the support you need.

6. Magazines and books
As a journalist and author, I should tell everyone to read as many health books and magazines as possible when researching their symptoms. But that wouldn't be a very responsible attitude. Many health books are thoroughly researched, but books tend to be written around a year in advance of publication and medical advice and information often changes during this time. Magazines tend to be more up-to-date, but certainly shouldn't be used for diagnosis. However, they may offer useful tips and background information (although you are relying on the fact that the journalist has thoroughly researched the articles before these are published).

Monday, 19 May 2014

Drinkable sunscreen? Whatever next!

Summer must be on its way, as the health media has been inundated with stories about sun protection products over the last few days. Or maybe it's pure chance that this coincides with the first hot weather of the year.

New Which? research (published on Friday May 16th)  into the effectiveness of sun creams has revealed products from three popular brands failed to provide the protection they claim.  Piz Buin Ultra Light Dry Touch Sun Fluid SPF 30 150ml, Malibu Protective Lotion SPF30 200ml and Hawaiian Tropic Satin Protection Ultra Radiance Sun Lotion SPF30 200ml all had results lower than SPF 25, despite claiming an SPF of 30. The Which? research also noted that spending more money doesn't guarantee effectiveness. Calypso Sun Lotion SPF30 250ml was the cheapest sun cream on test, costing just £1.20 per 100ml, and passed both British Standard tests.

Today, the Daily Mail reported that a US company claims to have invented the first drinkable sunscreen. Osmosis Skincare claim their product, Harmonised H20 UV protection, can provide sun protection up to SPF 30. Apparently, once ingested, the product's liquid molecules vibrate on the skin, cancelling out 97% of UVA and UVB rays. According to the company's website, you drink 2ml of the liquid every four hours while in the sun (preferably with water) to achieve the full protection. However, anyone exercising vigorously outdoors or taking sun-sensitising medicines should use alternate protection after 30 to 40 minutes.

This news story has great timing, considering the Which? report three days earlier that may have cast doubt into the minds of consumers about the sun lotions they are currently using to protect themselves. Yet, as it happens, even SPF 25 provides good protection from the sun; Cancer Research UK's Sun Smart website currently recommends using sunscreens with at least SPF 15 and a high star rating.

So would you want to drink sunscreen out of a bottle instead of slapping it on your skin? And, more importantly, would this be putting you at the risk of sunburn or, even worse, skin cancer? 

Bear in mind that both of these news stories come nearly a month after Cancer Research UK revealed that the incidence of malignant melanoma - the most serious form of skin cancer - is now five times higher than it was in the 1970s. Malignant melanoma is now the 5th most common cancer in the UK, with more than 2000 dying from it each year.

So far, the trend on twitter has been a resounding 'no', with terms 'irresponsible', 'stupid' and 'dubious'! In fact, the British Skin Foundation (BSF) posted on its twitter feed this morning: "For anyone who has read about drinkable sunscreen, we would advise extreme caution."

The BSF also posted its sun safety tips:
1. Protect your skin with clothing and don't forget to wear a hat that protects your face, neck and ears.
2. Spend time in the shade between 11am and 3pm when it's sunny.
3. When choosing a sunscreen, look for a high protection SPF (SPF 30 or more) to protect against UVB, and the UVA circle logo and/or 4 or 5 UVA stars to protect against UVA.
4. Apply plenty of sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun, and reapply every two hours and straight after swimming and towel-drying.
5. Keep babies and young children out of direct sunlight.

Funnily enough, there was no mention of drinking sunscreen.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Are you using your medicines properly?

A new report by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), published last week, highlights the fact that pharmacists need to improve patients' use of medicines. Apparently, between 30 and 50 percent of patients taking medicines for chronic conditions don't take them as directed, leading to ill-health and extra costs for the NHS.

Ensuring the best use of medicines, reducing the risks of side effects and making sure people are taking medicines properly and safely are core activities of all pharmacy services. A report in May 2013, also by the RPS, revealed that 'only 16 percent of patients who are prescribed a new medicine take it as prescribed, experience no problems and receive as much information as they need.'

But we can't put all the responsibility onto pharmacists. It's also up to us as patients to make sure we are taking prescribed medicines correctly (where possible). And while the reports focus on prescription medicines, this also apply to anything we buy over the pharmacy counter.

So how can you make sure you are using your medicines properly?

1. Speak out
The National Pharmacy Association's Ask your Pharmacist campaign stresses that you should always let your pharmacist know if you are:

  • allergic to anything
  • taking prescribed medicines from another pharmacist or hospital pharmacy
  • taking over-the-counter (OTC) medicines or vitamin, mineral or herbal supplements
  • pregnant or breastfeeding
  • buying or collecting the medicines for someone else.

Always ask questions
Sometimes the instructions on the medicine label or in the supplied leaflet aren't clear (or in layperson's terms). So when picking up a prescription medicine or buying any OTC product for the first time, always ask:
  • What is this medicine for? [Make sure you know which medicines are helping which symptoms or medical conditions,]
  • How long does it take to work and will I notice the effects? [You may not notice blood pressure medicines doing anything, yet they will still be working in the background.]
  • Why do I need to take or use it? [It's important to understand why you need to take a medicine and what will happen if you don't.]
  • When should I take or use it? [How many times a day, morning or night etc.]
  • How do I take or use it? [Make sure you know, for example, how to put eye drops in.]
  • How long should I take it for? [Do you need to finish a specific course or do you need to keep getting new prescriptions each month?]
  • What do I do if I forget a dose? [Do I take the next one, take it as soon as I remember etc?]
  • Does it have any side effects? [What are the side effects? What do you do if you think you are experiencing any?]
  • Are there any possible risks I should be aware of? [Some medicines can affect your liver, for example, so your doctor may advise that you have regular liver function tests.]
  • Could it interact with any other medicines I am taking? [This includes over-the-counter medicines and vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements.]
  • Will it still work if I have a stomach upset? [If you use oral contraceptives, for example, you will need to use condoms if you have a stomach bug as the contraceptive won't be as effective.]
  • Can I take it with/without food or drink? [Some medicines, for example, interact with grapefruit juice.] 
  • Do I need to store it any particular way? [e.g. in the fridge].

3. Find ways to remind yourself
If you don't always remember to take your medicines, what can you do to jog your memory?
  • Get into a routine and stick with it.
  • Fill up a dossette box with medicines for a week. So you will be able to tell if you forget a dose. 
  • Link taking medicines with specific activities (e.g. the evening news, the morning paper TV programmes). 
  • Set multiple alarms or reminders on your mobile phone. 
  • Keep a diary or planner and tick off a dose once you have taken it.
  • Ask your friends or family to remind you.

3. Access pharmacy services
If you are prescribed a new medicine for the first time for asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, type-2 diabetes or high blood pressure, ask your pharmacist about The New Medicines Services (NMS), which is free across England. If you are eligible, the pharmacist will answer many of the questions above to help you get the most out of your medicines and stay well.

If you are taking two or more prescribed medicines for a chronic conditions, you can have a free NHS Medicines Use Review (MUR). This service is available throughout England and Wales ('Managing your Medicines' is offered in Ireland and a 'Chronic Medication Service' is available in Scotland). During this personal consultation, your pharmacist can discuss the medicines you are prescribed, whether you are experiencing any problems or side effects and whether there could be a more effective way of taking them.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Vitamin D boosters

Today has been sunnier than I expected. But unfortunately, thanks to work deadlines, I haven't had a chance to enjoy the sunshine and get a much-needed vitamin D boost.

Unlike many other vitamins, vitamin D isn't readily available from food, with sunlight being the best source. Thanks to our usually dreary skies, millions of people in Britain are not getting enough vitamin D, putting children at risk of rickets (soft bones) and leaving adults with osteoporosis (brittle bones) and other health problems. According to draft guidelines by the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), currently undergoing consultation until 24th June, councils should consider making supplements available to the one in five adults at risk of deficiency, in particular older people and those with darker skin and pharmacies should be encouraged to stock low-cost vitamin D supplements.

Most people don't need to take vitamin D supplements - so don't take them unless your GP advises you to do so.

I was diagnosed as vitamin D deficient several years ago. When my vitamin D levels are low, I experience joint pains and fatigue, so I am supposed to take supplements every day to keep these symptoms at bay. Unfortunately, I have a dreadful habit of forgetting to take supplements (or medicines in general).

Recently, I have been trying out a vitamin D mouth spray, BetterYou's DLux 1000iu oral spray. This is much more convenient than taking a tablet, as I keep the spray at the side of my bed and grab it when I wake up. I simply spray once under my tongue and the vitamin is (apparently) absorbed directly into my bloodstream.  This particular product supplies 1000iu (25 mg) of vitamin D in every spray, but there is also a 3000iu version and 400iu version, depending on the dose you require.  

Many people worry about topping up their vitamin D levels through exposure to sunshine because of the risk of sunburn and skin cancer. The amount of time you need to be out in the sun will depend on many things - your skin type, time of day, time of year or where you are in the world. Generally, according to Cancer Research UK, you only need 10 to 15 minutes in the summer sun in the middle of day without sun protection to ensure you get enough vitamin D. Cancer Research UK stresses that your skin must not redden or burn.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Don't forget gluten-free guests

This weekend, we invited a group of friends over for tea to celebrate my husband's birthday. One of our friends is gluten intolerant, so we wanted to make sure that she was well-catered for. We made her a flour-less chocolate almond cake and bought some Doves Farm gluten-free biscuits.

It is estimated that around one in 100 people in the UK has coeliac disease (gluten-intolerance). Symptoms include bloating, diarrhoea, wind, nausea, constipation, tiredness, headaches, sudden or unexpected weight loss (but not in all cases), hair loss and anaemia. Leading a gluten-free lifestyle can be a challenge, but it is essential to prevent the symptoms and reduce the risk of complications.

Sweet treats aside, according to Coeliac UK, many people who are gluten-intolerant encounter difficulties when searching for gluten-free staple items such as bread, crackers, cereals and rolls. They often have to travel from one supermarket to another simply to buy essential food items.

This year's Coeliac Awareness Week (12th to 18th May) focuses on the availability of gluten-free food in supermarkets. The charity's Gluten-free Guarantee is asking supermarkets to sign up to having eight core gluten-free items in store, so people can manage their condition more easily. The core items are: fresh white bread, fresh brown bread, bread rolls, breakfast cereals, pasta, flour, crackers and cereal bars. For more details, visit Coeliac Awareness Week 2014

If you have been diagnosed with coeliac disease by a doctor, did you know you are entitled to receive a reasonable quantity of gluten-free staple foods on prescription? You fill out a gluten-free prescription order form with your GP (or in some pharmacies) indicating which products you would like and the quantities. Your order will then be delivered to your chosen pharmacy for you to collect once it is ready. In England, you will have to pay prescription charges unless you are exempt (see my blog on 30th April 2014). For details, visit Coeliac UK's Prescriptions page.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Ovarian cancer - make sure you know the signs

Today is World Ovarian Cancer Day. Many symptoms of this type of cancer are non-specific little niggles that could be caused by a whole host of less-serious health problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome or ovarian cysts. This is why many women ignore them and are diagnosed too late.

Remember, ovarian cancer is fairly rare
According to Ovarian Cancer Action, all women in the UK have a one in 54 chance of developing ovarian cancer. Women are most at risk if they have a family history of ovarian or breast cancer or they are aged over 50, although there are some other factors that will increase the risk slightly (e.g. being obese or starting menstrual periods before the age of 12).

Know for the signs
Watch out for these symptoms  (courtesy of Ovarian Cancer Action):

  • Persistent stomach pain
  • Persistent bloating
  • Finding it difficult to eat or feeling full quickly
  • Needing to wee more often.

If you are regularly experiencing these symptoms on most days, it's important to talk to your GP as soon as possible. Make a symptom diary including when they occur and if they appear to be getting worse. Also think about any triggers that could be setting them off (e.g. what you eat or drink, your stress levels etc).

Other symptoms you may notice include:

  • Back pain
  • Changes in your bowel habits (diarrhoea or constipation)
  • Feeling tired all the time.
Don't panic
Most people get the above symptoms from time to time. Usually these don't have a serious cause. However, they also shouldn't be ignored. According to Ovarian Cancer Action, ovarian cancer symptoms usually persistent and frequent (for more then 12 days a month), get progressively worse, will have started within the last 12 months and will be unusual for you. Your GP can arrange a number of tests and discuss any concerns.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

How is your asthma inhaler technique?

Today's big health story (so far) is a new report - Why asthma still kills - published by the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) to coincide with World Asthma Day. According to the report, nearly three-quarters of asthma deaths could have been avoided with better care and better access to medical help. The RCP report recommends that everyone with asthma has their inhaler technique assessed formally once a year and whenever the pharmacist dispenses a new device.

So what should you be doing to make sure you are using your inhalers properly?

1. Check your technique
I suffer from mild asthma - my symptoms usually only strike at the peak of the hayfever season or when I have a respiratory infection such as a cold. I don't need new inhalers very often, because I don't use them very often, but I don't recall any pharmacist checking my inhaler technique when dispensing my prescriptions since I was first diagnosed over 30 years ago. I think the fact that I don't use inhalers on a regular basis could possibly make me more likely to forget the correct technique.

Even if your pharmacist doesn't mention it to you, make sure you ask them to check that you are using your inhaler properly. There's nothing like a one-to-one practical demonstration. However, for general guidance, you can also visit Asthma UK's Using your inhalers page.

2. Get the right products
If you are having problems using your inhaler (because of arthritis in your hands, for example), speak to your GP, who may be able to switch you to a different type of inhaler or suggest products that can help, such as the Haleraid or Turboaid - you can't get these on prescription, but your pharmacist should be able to order them in for you. Spacers, which are available on prescription, make aerosol inhalers more effective by trapping the medicine inside so you don't have to worry about pressing the inhaler and breathing in at the same time.

Use inhalers appropriately
Also speak to the pharmacist about when you use your inhalers. The RCP report found that asthma patients are relying too heavily on their reliever inhalers (usually blue) and not enough on their preventer inhalers (usually brown, red or orange). Nearly half of those who died from an asthma attack had not had an asthma review with their GP or nurse in the previous year.

3. Write an asthma action plan
According to the RCP report, better education is needed for doctors, nurses, patients and carers to make them more aware of the risks of asthma, to spot the warning signs of poor asthma control and to know what to do during an attack. All patients should be provided with a personal asthma action plan (PAAP), to help them identify if their asthma is worsening and tell them how and when to seek help. Asthma UK has a useful Asthma Action Plan that you can download from the charity's Personal action plan page and take to your GP or asthma nurse to discuss and fill in.

4. Have a Medicines Use Review
You can also ask your local pharmacist if they offer a Medicines Use Review (MUR) - this is a free NHS service in a private consultation room. You can discuss all your medicines with the pharmacist, to check they are all necessary, you are using them properly and to solve any problems you may have.

Licensed herbal medicines

As of the 1st of May 2014, all herbal medicines sold in pharmacies must have a traditional herbal registration (THR) or product licence (PL). So what does this mean for pharmacy customers?

According to Dr Linda Anderson from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the THR scheme gives people access to traditional herbal medicines that are safe, of good quality and sold with information on how to use the product correctly.

What are THR products for?
You can use a THR product for minor self-limiting ailments like colds or hayfever. Beware of any unlicensed product claiming to cure, treat or prevent any illness.

The THR scheme doesn't mean the herbal remedy has been tested and proven to actually work. It just means the product is made to good-quality standards with appropriate labelling and a product information leaflet. It also means the herb has been used in traditional remedies for more than 30 years.

What to look for on the label:

  • Look for the THR number on the packaging of herbal products.
  • Most registered herbal products will have the THR logo (see right) too.
  • Licensed medicines have a nine-digit PL (product licence) number on their labels, just like conventional medicines.

Herbal medicine safety
Natural doesn't always mean safe. Some unlicensed herbal medicines can cause side effects or may interact with other medicines. It's always important to tell your GP or pharmacist whether you are taking any herbal remedies or dietary supplements. St John's Wort, for example, which can be taken for mild depression, may interact with a whole host of medicines including the contraceptive pill, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), thyroid hormones and some anti-depressants.

Always read the product information leaflet carefully before taking any herbal remedy. If you experience any possible side effects, stop taking the product and speak to the pharmacist.

If you have an adverse reaction to any medicine, including herbal remedies, your pharmacist (or GP) can report this to the MHRA under a system called the Yellow Card Scheme. Alternatively, you can report it yourself directly at the MHRA Yellow Card Scheme website.

Consulting a medical herbalist
If you wish to consult a herbalist to get tailor-made advice, make sure you choose a reputable practitioner. You can find a herbalist in your local area through the website of The National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH). 

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Paying for prescriptions

Yesterday I picked up a prescription from my local pharmacy. NHS prescription charges have risen again, now £8.05 per item. While I don't need regular prescriptions, it made me spare a thought for those people who do.

Prescriptions raise valuable resources for the NHS. But for people with long-term conditions who take several medicines every month, the cost can be prohibitively expensive. At present, England is the only part of the UK where patients pay for their prescriptions, unless they are exempt (see below). In Wales, Northern Island and Scotland, prescribed medicines are free for everyone.

The Prescription Charges Coalition (PCC) is campaigning for free NHS prescriptions for everyone of working age who has a long-term condition. The PCC, which has more than 30 member charities and organisations (including the Royal Pharmaceutical Society), has found that many people are having to choose between food, clothing, bills or prescriptions. Some patients are rationing their prescriptions, or stopping them completely, because they simply can't afford them. Yet prescription medicines are vital in preventing serious health problems associated with long-term conditions and ultimately in reducing extra costs to the NHS and society as a whole.

In a survey by the PCC on prescription charges and employment in March 2014, over a third of people reported that the cost of their medication had prevented them from taking it as prescribed, with significant numbers saying this had affected their ability to work.

So are you entitled to free NHS prescriptions?
Some people can get free NHS prescriptions because of their age, income or medical condition. Visit  NHS Choices to find out if you are one of them.

Only certain medical conditions are covered. According to a report by the PCC in March 2013, this list is limited and not in keeping with the times. While people with insulin-controlled diabetes or an underactive thyroid are entitled to free prescriptions, those with asthma, high blood pressure, arthritis etc. still have to pay. The PCC's report (Paying the Price - Prescription Charges and People with Long-term Conditions) states:

'While some people are exempt from prescription charges on the basis of age, income and medical condition, the criteria for exemptions were set in 1968 and have remained largely unchanged since then. 45 years on, these criteria are now outdated, arbitrary and inequitable. Schemes to provide extra support with health costs, in particular the Prescription Prepayment Certificate and NHS Low Income Scheme are poorly publicised and difficult to access.'

The PCC is calling for people in England to email their MP, asking them to call for an end to prescription charges for those with long-term conditions. Visit the PCC's Take Action page to learn more.

So how can you minimise the cost?
The Prescription Prepayment Certificate (PPC) is intended to help people with long-term conditions, as long as they live in England. It is basically a season ticket for prescription medicines, for a period of either three months (£29.10) or 12 months (£104), covering all prescriptions during that period.

The PPC allows anyone to obtain all the prescriptions they need for £2 a week. However, it's only worth it if you require four or more prescription items over three months or 13 or more items over one year, and probably isn't worth it at all if your medical condition is unpredictable or fluctuating.

You can pay by 10 monthly direct debit instalments. Visit https://www.gov.uk/get-a-ppc to buy a PPC online, phone 0300 330 1341 or fill in the form FP95 (available from your pharmacy or GP surgery). Some pharmacies also sell PPCs direct.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Natural hayfever relief

If you don't want to use conventional hayfever treatments, or you can't do so because of an underlying medical problem or pregnancy for example, there are other things a pharmacy can offer.

1. If you are suffering from a blocked nose, use a seawater, or saline, nasal spray (such as Aqua Maris or Sterimar Nasal Hygiene) - I find these very effective for a stuffy nose caused by both hayfever and a cold.  These are ideal for pregnant and breast-feeding women, children and people taking prescribed medicines for long-term medical conditions (e.g. diabetes, high blood pressure).

2. Limit how much pollen actually gets into your nose. With HayMax pollen barrier balm, you dab a small amount around your nostrils in the morning and evening to form a visible barrier. HayMax blocks pollen, dust and pet allergens too. Care Allergy Defence is a powder nasal spray that works by reacting with moisture within the nose, creating an invisible thin protective gel barrier. NasalGuard AllergieBlock Topical Gel also forms a protective barrier - the positively charged gel blocks negatively charged allergens on contact before they get a chance to enter your nose. Petroleum jelly (e.g. Vaseline) is also effective.

3. Pollen spreads easily in the air so it's difficult to avoid completely. But if all else fails, you could try these avoidance measures to reduce your pollen exposure:
  1. Check the pollen forecast every day (visit the Met Office website).
  2. Limit outdoor trips to rural areas - the seaside may be a better option as the sea breeze blows pollen inland
  3. If you do go out, remember to shower and wash your hair on your return and change your clothes.
  4. Keep your windows closed when indoors, especially in the early morning and early evening, as this is when pollen is highest.
  5. Wear wraparound sunglasses when outdoors to stop pollen flying into your eyes
For more advice on pollen exposure and treating hayfever, visit Allergy UK's website: www.allergyuk.org.

Is your hayfever under control?

It is Allergy Awareness Week in the UK, timed to coincide with the start of the hayfever season.

Hayfever is often thought of as a minor inconvenience - causing a slight stuffy nose, itchy eyes, an occasional sneezing fit ... But for many of the 18 million hayfever sufferers in Britain, it can cause significant distress. I know that when my hayfever flares up, I feel tired, heady and lose my concentration easily. Poorly controlled hayfever can lead to an asthma flare up and is a common trigger of sinusitis and ear infections at this time of year. So it's essential to make sure you are using the right medicines and products to ease your hayfever symptoms.

According to Allergy UK, millions of people don't find that their hayfever medicines effectively control their symptoms - and this is usually down to user error. New research by the charity reveals that while one in three hayfever sufferers use a corticosteroid nasal spray, only 14% are using it correctly. This means that for 86% of nasal spray users, the product won't work for them.

During Allergy Awareness Week, Allergy UK is urging hayfever sufferers to speak to their local pharmacist about their symptoms and how to use the nasal sprays properly. The key is to tip your head forward while looking down, insert the nozzle and spray towards the outside of your nose. Your pharmacist should be able to give you a demonstration if you are having problems with your technique.

If you use antihistamines for your hayfever, check that you are using the right one. According to Allergy UK research, 12% of hayfever sufferers are using sedating antihistamines (e.g. chlorphenamine), which can make you feel drowsy. You would be far better off sticking to one-a-day antihistamine products (e.g. those containing cetirizine, loratidine or acrivastine), as these won't affect driving, work or your social life.

With any over-the-counter medicines, always ask the pharmacist before you buy, to make sure the products are suitable for you and won't interact with anything else you are taking.

Monday, 28 April 2014


Welcome to my new blog on getting the best out of your local pharmacy. I've been writing about health for over 20 years.  I have spent a considerable amount of time writing for pharmacists and the rest of the pharmacy team. Well now it's time for me to write about pharmacies with the customer in mind.

A pharmacy is the 'health clinic on the high street' at the heart of the community. It provides easily-accessible health advice from a highly qualified healthcare professional, alongside effective products and medicines for a wide range of symptoms.

According to the National Pharmacy Association (NPA), 90% of people in Britain visit a pharmacy at least once a year, and there are 1.6 million visits to a pharmacy every day. Ninety-six percent of the population can get to a pharmacy within 20 minutes by walking or using public transport. Yet surveys by the NPA reveal that while people visit a pharmacy for medicines advice, many don't know about the wide range of services and other products on offer.

My blog will be looking at products and services offered by Britain's 13,000 community pharmacies -  from eczema creams to cold and flu relief, prescription charges to blood pressure checks, and weight management advice to Medicines Use Reviews (MURs).