Some health short cuts are okay; some are just not worth the trouble. But we continue to gamble with our health. “Sometimes even if we don’t see their effects right away, some health short cuts that we take regularly gnaw at our health and make us weak from inside,” says Nalin Nag, senior consultant, internal medicine, Apollo Hospital, New Delhi.
Here we have rated these seven popular “cheats” on a scale of 1-5, so that you know how big a gamble you are taking next time you are tempted to cut corners. There’s at least one in there that may not look like a risk at all, but can seriously hurt. Some are scarier than you knew and then there are other more widely advertised rules that can sometimes be broken.
Wearing disposable contact lenses past expiration
Risk rating: 3
Ashim Sablok, 39, a Delhi-based entrepreneur, was surprised when his doctor told him that the persistent redness and itchiness in his eyes was due to the fact that he had stretched the life of his contact lenses for too long . “I really didn’t think it was such a big deal earlier and did it all the time,” he says.
That hurts: What seems like a harmless or even a health-restoring short cut in an emergency can have serious consequences. Photoimaging: Raajan / Mint
“No, it just doesn’t work when you try to skimp by stretching your lenses beyond their life span (keeping monthly lenses for two months, for example). In fact, the cost can be detrimental to your eyes,” says Rina Sethi, director, Arunodaya Desert Eye Hospital, Gurgaon. “Even when you clean and disinfect them, lenses and lens cases become coated with germs and protein over time. If you are lucky, you may develop just reddened, irritated eyes or a bacterial infection. But sometimes extended use may even lead to development of corneal defects like ulcers due to low oxygen permeability to the cornea,” she says.
“Also, never sleep in lenses that aren’t suitable for overnight use,”she adds.
Better bet: What if you find that you are overnighting sans your cleaning solution and lens case? “Throw away the lenses,” says Dr Sethi. Buy daily disposable contact lenses to tide over the “emergency”.
Popping your mother’s sleeping pill
Risk rating: 3
You’re tossing and turning all night. You’ve had a long and stressful day, and expect another at work tomorrow, and you can’t sleep. So you finally reach into your mother’s medicine cabinet to pop the sleeping pill that her doctor prescribed for occasional use. How can it hurt this once? R.K. Mani, director, department of pulmonology, critical care and sleep medicine, Artemis Health Institute, New Delhi, says, “Those pills were prescribed keeping your mother’s requirements and health status in mind, as sleeping pills, if at all prescribed, should be customized to individual needs. One size would not fit all and may, in fact, cause adverse effect on your health and might even react with some other medication that you may be taking.”
Better bet: Try a light snack or hot milk instead, Dr Mani suggests. Avoid stimulants such as alcohol, coffee or tea. For quick relief, try rubbing a little pure almond oil on your temples to help you relax. However, note that frequent sleep disturbance is a warning that you need lifestyle changes, he says, “and giving up the habit of taking stimulants rather than taking a sleeping pill” might be a good idea.
Not finishing a course of antibiotics
Risk rating: 3
How often have you felt better after a couple of days on antibiotics and decided against the rest of the course? Our bet, is very often. “The fact is that you may feel recovered, but if you don’t finish the medication, all the bacteria causing the infection may not be killed and the infection could come back. Plus, the best way to cause bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics is to under-treat them. Bacteria multiply very rapidly and may just come back stronger and more resistant to the pills next time round as with incomplete antibiotic therapy we kill off only weaker strains and promote stronger, resistant strains,” says Dr Nag. So, finish that strip. Most such medicines are prescribed for at least five-seven days at a time because the infections take that much time to be eradicated totally.
Similarly, stopping antivirals at will can promote resistant viral strains (oh, and antibiotics don’t work against viruses, so no point taking those for a cold or flu).
Better bet: If you missed a day’s worth of pills, add on an extra day of medication and keep your doctor informed.
Eating food past its expiry date
Risk rating: 1
We know these are hard times in terms of food prices, so how can you fail to take advantage of those supermarket shelf-clearing deep discounts as items approach their “best before”?
It isn’t always such a terrible idea to eat old stuff, according to Ashwini Setya, senior consultant, gastroenterology and hepatology, Max Super Speciality Hospital, New Delhi. She says, “The expiration date is an indication for ‘best used before the date’. It does not mean that after that date the food is spoilt or has become poisonous. It simply means that the preservatives may get less effective with time and there may be an alteration in taste.”
However, she adds, “While you won’t necessarily get sick from eating expired food, its freshness and nutrient value may be diminished. Also, the risk varies from food to food—it is constituent-based. With certain foods, you can’t be careful enough.” So meat and dairy, for instance, should really be eaten before the expiry date. Eggs are usually safe for a while because of the natural protection the shell gives them. “Where food is stored can also have an effect on its longevity. Keeping the refrigerator at 40 degrees (Fahrenheit) or cooler helps lock out bacteria,” adds Dr Setya.
Better bet: When in doubt (if the colour, smell or texture seem odd), throw it out.
Swallowing an extra painkiller if a headache won’t go away
Risk rating: 2
“If you pop just one extra for that severe day-spoiling category of headache, there is nothing to fret (about) as usually their dosage is within the safety range. But making a habit of self-medication is definitely not a good idea, as self-medication totally undermines the immune system,” says Dr Nag. “Besides, arbitrary intake of anti-inflammatory painkillers in the season of dengue and myriad other flus can prove dangerous and even fatal as these medicines drop the platelet counts so low that fatality chances skyrocket,” he adds.
Better bet: Ascertain the cause of the headache and try to tackle that. For example, if neck tension (due to wrong posture) is the cause, try a few yoga stretches. If it is stress, take a meditation break or at least a 5-10 minute walk. Hunger and dehydration can also spark a headache, so eat a healthy snack and drink some water.
Risk rating: 2
If you reheat your food repeatedly, you face the risk of severe and debilitating gastrointestinal problems. “Food that has already been reheated (once) should not be cooled and reheated a second time, to avoid the food being at temperatures that drastically support the growth of pathogenic bacteria. It is better to eat the food cold rather than reheat it again and again,” Dr Setya says.
“The fact is that the redox (reduction and oxidation) potential of some foods (such as meats and eggs) is high,” she says, “meaning an underlying chemical reaction happens on heating the food again and again, and causes the formation of toxins which may be detrimental to your health in the long run. Plus, the botulinum organism comes into play and recontamination is possible at each re-cooling and reheating,” she adds.
Better bet: Cook once, cool quickly, reheat once—that’s it. Store leftovers in small containers and reheat only once, just before eating. If you still have leftovers, eat them cold.
Eating unwashed fruit
Risk rating: 2
“Those grapes you just bought from the market may look clean enough for you to want to bite in right away, but they are not,” says Dr Setya.
“There are lots of reasons why you need to wait for 30 seconds and give it a quick rinse first: to wash off dirt, pesticide residues, bacteria, bird faeces, insect residues... Washing should be vigorous, as in some fruits (such as grapes), because of leaking juices, dirt and grime get stuck.” Skipping this step can lead to a salmonella or campylobacter infection, which can cause fever, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain (some severe versions have been known to even cause paralysis).
Better bet: Try using a potassium permanganate or veggie washing solution to clean raw produce. But use only the recommended dilution (excess can “burn” the fruit and your tongue). For potassium permanganate, the rule of thumb is the water should only get a faint tinge of pink. And make sure the final wash is with clean water to wash off residues of the solution.
“If a vegetable or piece of fruit is especially dirty, washing might not be enough to get it clean,” adds Dr Setya. Peel it, in that case. Also, some imported fruits have a thin layer of wax on the peel to make them appear fresh and preserve them longer. “Although it is only a few microns, if you suspect it is there, then it is better to peel them as washing won’t take it off,” she adds.
Risk ratings: 1= Okay in an emergency; 2= It’s tempting, but do yourself a favour and avoid; 3= Red alert! Don’t even think about it
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