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Is a common pain reliever safe during pregnancy?

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For years, products containing acetaminophen, such as the pain reliever Tylenol, were largely viewed as safe to take during pregnancy. Hundreds of widely available over-the-counter remedies, including popular cold, cough, and flu products, contain acetaminophen. Not surprisingly, some 65% of women in the US report taking it during pregnancy to relieve a headache or to ease an aching back.

But recently, a group of doctors and scientists issued a consensus statement in Nature Reviews Endocrinology urging increased caution around acetaminophen use in pregnancy. They noted growing evidence of its potential to interfere with fetal development, possibly leaving lingering effects on the brain, reproductive and urinary systems, and genital development. And while the issue they raise is important, it’s worth noting that the concerns come from studies done in animals and human observational studies. These types of studies cannot prove that acetaminophen is the actual cause of any of these problems.

An endocrine disruptor

Acetaminophen is known to be an endocrine disruptor. That means it can interfere with chemicals and hormones involved in healthy growth, possibly throwing it off track.

According to the consensus statement, some research suggests that exposure to acetaminophen during pregnancy — particularly high doses or frequent use — potentially increases risk for early puberty in girls, or male fertility problems such as low sperm count. It is also associated with other issues such as undescended testicles, or a birth defect called hypospadias where the opening in the tip of the penis is not in the right place. It might play a role in attention deficit disorder and negatively affect IQ.

Risks for ill effects are low

If you took acetaminophen during a current or past pregnancy, this might sound pretty scary — especially since you’ve probably always considered this medicine harmless. But while experts agree it’s important to consider potential risks when taking any over-the-counter or prescription medicines during pregnancy, you shouldn’t panic.

“The risk for an individual is low,” says Dr. Kathryn M. Rexrode, chief of the Division of Women’s Health, Department of Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Chances are pretty good that if you took acetaminophen during a pregnancy, your baby likely did not, or will not, suffer any ill effects.

The research on this topic is not conclusive. Some information used to inform the consensus statement was gathered from studies on animals, or human studies with significant limitations. More research is needed to confirm that this medicine is truly causing health problems, and to determine at what doses, and at what points during a pregnancy, exposure to acetaminophen might be most harmful.

Sensible steps if you’re pregnant

Three common-sense steps can help protect you and your baby until more is known on this topic:

  • Avoid acetaminophen during pregnancy when possible. Previously during preconception and pregnancy counseling, Dr. Rexrode had warned patients against using NSAID drugs, such as Advil and Aleve, and suggested taking acetaminophen instead. “Now I also tell people that some concerns have been raised about acetaminophen use during pregnancy, and explain that its use should be limited to situations where it is really needed,” says Dr. Rexrode. In short, always consider whether you really need it before you swallow a pill.
  • Consult with your doctor. Always clear acetaminophen use with your doctor, particularly if you are going to be using the medicine for a long period of time. They might agree that taking it is the best option — or suggest a safer alternative.
  • Minimize use. If you do need to take acetaminophen during pregnancy, take it for the shortest amount of time possible and at the lowest effective dose to reduce fetal exposure. “This advice about the lowest necessary dose for the shortest period of time is generally good counseling for all over-the-counter medication use, especially during pregnancy,” says Dr. Rexrode.

While all of this is good advice for using acetaminophen, there are times when it’s riskier not to take it. For example, if you have a high fever during pregnancy — which can harm your baby — acetaminophen may be needed to bring your fever down. Provided it’s advised by your doctor, the benefits of acetaminophen use in this case outweigh the potential risks.

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What is neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.

The word neurodiversity refers to the diversity of all people, but it is often used in the context of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as other neurological or developmental conditions such as ADHD or learning disabilities. The neurodiversity movement emerged during the 1990s, aiming to increase acceptance and inclusion of all people while embracing neurological differences. Through online platforms, more and more autistic people were able to connect and form a self-advocacy movement. At the same time, Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist, coined the term neurodiversity to promote equality and inclusion of “neurological minorities.” While it is primarily a social justice movement, neurodiversity research and education is increasingly important in how clinicians view and address certain disabilities and neurological conditions.

Words matter in neurodiversity

Neurodiversity advocates encourage inclusive, nonjudgmental language. While many disability advocacy organizations prefer person-first language (“a person with autism,” “a person with Down syndrome”), some research has found that the majority of the autistic community prefers identity-first language (“an autistic person”). Therefore, rather than making assumptions, it is best to ask directly about a person’s preferred language, and how they want to be addressed. Knowledge about neurodiversity and respectful language is also important for clinicians, so they can address the mental and physical health of people with neurodevelopmental differences.

Neurodiversity and autism spectrum disorder

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is associated with differences in communication, learning, and behavior, though it can look different from person to person. People with ASD may have a wide range of strengths, abilities, needs, and challenges. For example, some autistic people are able to communicate verbally, have a normal or above average IQ, and live independently. Others might not be able to communicate their needs or feelings, may struggle with impairing and harmful behaviors that impact their safety and well-being, and may be dependent on support in all areas of their life. Additionally, for some people with autism, differences may not cause any suffering to the person themself. Instead, the suffering may result from the barriers imposed by societal norms, causing social exclusion and inequity.

Medical evaluation and treatment is important for individuals with ASD. For example, establishing a formal diagnosis may enable access to social and medical services if needed. A diagnostic explanation may help the individual or their family understand their differences better and enable community connections. Additionally, neurodevelopmental conditions may also be associated with other health issues that require extra monitoring or treatment. It is important that people who need and desire behavioral supports or interventions to promote communication, social, academic, and daily living skills have access to those services in order to maximize their quality of life and developmental potential. However, approaches to interventions cannot be one-size-fits-all, as all individuals will have different goals, desires, and needs.

Fostering neurodiversity in the workplace

Stigma, a lack of awareness, and lack of appropriate infrastructure (such as office setup or staffing structures) can cause exclusion of people with neurodevelopmental differences. Understanding and embracing neurodiversity in communities, schools, healthcare settings, and workplaces can improve inclusivity for all people. It is important for all of us to foster an environment that is conducive to neurodiversity, and to recognize and emphasize each person’s individual strengths and talents while also providing support for their differences and needs.

How can employers make their workplaces more neurodiversity-friendly?

  • Offer small adjustments to an employee’s workspace to accommodate any sensory needs, such as
    • Sound sensitivity: Offer a quiet break space, communicate expected loud noises (like fire drills), offer noise-cancelling headphones.
    • Tactile: Allow modifications to the usual work uniform.
    • Movements: Allow the use of fidget toys, allow extra movement breaks, offer flexible seating.
  • Use a clear communication style:
    • Avoid sarcasm, euphemisms, and implied messages.
    • Provide concise verbal and written instructions for tasks, and break tasks down into small steps.
  • Inform people about workplace/social etiquette, and don’t assume someone is deliberately breaking the rules or being rude.
  • Try to give advance notice if plans are changing, and provide a reason for the change.
  • Don’t make assumptions — ask a person’s individual preferences, needs, and goals.
  • Be kind, be patient.

Resources to learn more about neurodiversity

Neurodiversity in the Workplace

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Skin in the game: Two common skin problems and solutions for men

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When I was on the junior varsity basketball team in high school, I wasn't surprised when I developed a case of itchy, flaky athlete's foot. After all, I was an "athlete," so I assumed it was a sign of dedication and hard work.

I was shocked when my mother told me the truth: it was due to poor foot hygiene, not my dribbling skills.

Fast-forward almost four decades, and I’m much more diligent about skin care. Still, some skin issues plague me at times, like they do many men. Here is a look at two common problems and solutions.

Dry skin

Symptoms of dry skin include scaly patches (with or without redness), itching, and overall dryness. You can get dry skin year-round — from the heavy heat of summer to the bitter cold of winter. Sun exposure damages skin, leaving it thinner and less likely to hold in moisture over time. Also, aging skin produces less of the natural oils that keep skin lubricated.

Treatment. The first line of defense is a moisturizer that softens and smooths skin with water and lipids (fats). Some moisturizers attract water to the skin and seal it in. Others prevent moisture loss by coating skin with a thick, impermeable layer.

  • Petroleum jelly. This waxy, greasy substance stops water loss without clogging pores. It can be used by itself but is also an ingredient in many moisturizers and ointments. Because petroleum jelly doesn’t contain water, it’s best used while the skin is still damp after bathing to seal in moisture.
  • Mineral oil. Mineral oil has the same effect but without a greasy feeling. It also should be used while skin is damp.
  • Moisturizing lotions and creams. These products contain both water and oils. They’re less greasy and more cosmetically appealing than petroleum jelly or oils. Look for moisturizers with at least one of the following ingredients: glycerin, urea, pyroglutamic acid, sorbitol, lactic acid, lactate salts, or alpha hydroxy acids.

Prevention. Try a few changes to help prevent dry skin:

  • Add moisture to the air with a humidifier or a pan of water set atop the radiator.
  • In the shower or bath, use lukewarm water (hot water can dry the skin by stripping it of natural oils).
  • Choose nondrying soaps with no abrasives or irritants. Super-fatted soaps or cleansing bars are less drying than regular, liquid, or antibacterial soaps.
  • To retain the water your skin absorbs while showering or bathing, apply jelly, oil, or moisturizer immediately afterward.

Athlete’s foot

Athlete’s foot is caused by dermatophytes, a group of fungi on the surface of the skin. Tell-tale signs include intense itching; cracked, blistered, or peeling areas of skin, especially between the toes; and redness and scaling on the soles. Dermatophytes thrive in warm, moist environments like pools, showers, and locker rooms where people walk with bare feet. The warm, moist environment of sweaty socks and shoes encourages them to grow.

Treatment. First, try an over-the-counter antifungal ointment, cream, or powder, such as clotrimazole (Lotrimin AF, Mycelex, generic), terbinafine (Lamisil AT, Silka,), or miconazole (Lotrimin AF spray, Micatin). It can take weeks for an infection to improve, and recurrences are common. If symptoms don't improve after several weeks, consult a doctor, who may prescribe antifungal pills.

Prevention. Keeping feet clean and dry is the best way to ward off athlete’s foot. Also, do the following:

  • Wash your feet well every day, and wear a clean pair of socks after your bath or shower.
  • Take time to dry your feet thoroughly (including each toe and especially the web space between the toes) after you bathe, shower, or swim.
  • Wear flip-flops or sandals around public pools and in gym locker rooms and showers.
  • Wear moisture-wicking socks that absorb sweat.
  • Don’t wear the same shoes two days in a row. Give shoes a 24-hour break between wearings to air out and dry.

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Preventing preeclampsia may be as simple as taking an aspirin

Preeclampsia is a common and dangerous complication of pregnancy that causes high blood pressure and excess protein in urine. Typically, it occurs during the third trimester or very soon after birth, but there may be a simple way to help prevent it.

If you’re pregnant, preeclampsia can cause kidney and liver abnormalities, blood clotting problems, headache, stroke, and even death. It makes it harder to deliver nutrients and oxygen to a growing fetus. And it’s linked to premature birth and low birthweight in babies. Yet a daily low-dose aspirin may help prevent many of these problems, according to a recent statement from the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).

Who is most likely to develop preeclampsia?

While preeclampsia can happen without any warning, certain risk factors make it more likely to occur:

  • carrying multiples, such as twins or triplets
  • having diabetes
  • being 35 or older
  • having obesity, described as a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30
  • having high blood pressure before pregnancy
  • having kidney disease or an autoimmune disorder.

Preeclampsia also occurs more often in Black people as a result of structural racism, which restricts access to care, and can also be a source of chronic stress from factors like food and housing insecurity that lead to poorer health and well-being.

Overall, preeclampsia affects about one in 25 pregnancies in the United States. It accounts for almost one out of every five medically-induced premature births. Preventing it will save lives.

What does the task force recommend to help prevent preeclampsia?

In the 2021 statement, the USPSTF recommends that doctors prescribe a daily low-dose (81 mg) aspirin for those at high risk for preeclampsia. The aspirin should be started at the end of the first trimester (12 weeks of pregnancy) and continued until the birth.

This supports a previous recommendation from the task force in 2014. And importantly, the statement reflects findings from a recent systematic review of research. The review looked at the role of aspirin in preventing preeclampsia, and whether aspirin can reduce complications among pregnant people, fetuses, and newborns. It also examined the safety of low-dose aspirin in pregnancy.

What did the review tell us?

Thirty-four randomized clinical trials comparing low-dose aspirin and placebo (a sugar pill) were included in the analysis. Most participants in the trials were young and white. Providing low-dose aspirin to those who were at high risk of preeclampsia successfully reduced risk for

  • developing preeclampsia
  • preterm birth (births before 37 weeks of pregnancy)
  • growth restriction (small babies)
  • fetal and newborn death due to preeclampsia.

The review considered whether using aspirin led to more bleeding problems. When comparing the aspirin group and the placebo group, no differences occurred in bleeding problems, such as maternal hemorrhage following a birth, fetal brain bleeding, and the placenta separating from the wall of the uterus too early.

Who should take low-dose aspirin during pregnancy?

Overall, the benefits of taking low-dose aspirin outweigh risks for some pregnant people. Your doctor may recommend it if you

  • have had preeclampsia before
  • already have high blood pressure or diabete
  • are carrying multiples, such as twins or triplets
  • have kidney or autoimmune disease.

It’s important to know that there are moderate risk factors to consider, too. When combined, they can increase the chance of preeclampsia and its complications. Your doctor may recommend low-dose aspirin if you have two or more of these factors:

  • having your first baby
  • having obesity
  • having a mother or sister who had preeclampsia
  • being 35 years old or older
  • having conceived with in-vitro fertilization (IVF)
  • having had a baby before who was small for gestational age
  • having a difficult pregnancy outcome in the past.

Unequal distribution of healthcare, and social and environmental stress, make preeclampsia and its complications more likely to occur in pregnant people who are Black and those who have lower income. Therefore, the task force recommends low-dose aspirin for these pregnant individuals even if they have only one moderate risk factor.

The bottom line

New evidence supports using low-dose aspirin to help prevent preeclampsia, a dangerous and common complication of pregnancy. If you’re pregnant or considering pregnancy, talk with your doctor or midwife about preeclampsia. It’s important to learn the warning signs of possible problems even if you’re not at high risk. Together, you can decide whether low-dose aspirin is a good choice for you.

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Preparing for the holidays? Don’t forget rapid tests for COVID-19

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As the holiday season approaches, there’s a lot to keep in mind. Let’s just start with the easy questions: Who’s hosting Thanksgiving? Who’s making the turkey? The stuffing? Dessert?

But as we embark on our second round of holidays during the COVID-19 pandemic, we all have additional questions and decisions to make about how to keep everyone safe:

  • Inside or outside? While outside is safer, it may be too cold where you are to consider dining outdoors.
  • Is it necessary to wear masks or keep a physical distance? That depends on everyone’s vaccination status, recent exposures, and risk tolerance.
  • Must everyone be vaccinated? For many, this one’s a dealbreaker. Some hosts may insist. And some family and friends may come only if everyone is vaccinated.

The role of COVID testing could be changing

We know a lot more about testing for COVID-19 than at this time last year:

  • PCR tests. This is still the most accurate test of current infection. It detects small amounts of genetic material from the virus that causes COVID-19. But it often takes days to get the result back.
  • Rapid tests. This is typically an antigen test. It detects small bits of viral protein using similar technology to that used in pregnancy tests. An advantage of this type of testing is that the results are back in minutes. And while these tests have a higher rate of false negatives than a PCR test, getting a negative result strongly suggests you aren’t contagious. Even if you are infected, a negative result suggests there’s too little virus to infect others, at least at the time of the test. So, rapid COVID tests could be used as a way to screen people just before an activity during which exposure is possible — like Thanksgiving or other holiday gatherings.

One approach is to offer testing for each person as they arrive. It might slow the reunion process down a bit, but only for a few minutes. If a visiting friend or family member tests positive, they should leave along with anyone else they might have already exposed. The next step for them would to be to quarantine while waiting for results from a PCR test.

Cost, availability, and other limits of rapid testing before gatherings

While rapid testing may be a useful way to reduce your risk as holiday gatherings approach, it’s not perfect. Cost per test is high, generally $10 to $40 in the US. That’s especially hard for people with limited resources and those at higher risk for infection and complications from COVID-19. Rapid tests may be hard to find, too, although the Biden administration has vowed to address lack of availability by pledging several billion dollars to expand rapid testing. The health department in your community may be able to help you find test sites.

The FDA has given emergency use authorization to nearly 40 different tests, and research suggests that different brands vary widely in their accuracy. Currently, there are no specific recommendations from experts about which rapid test is best.

Additionally:

  • Results only apply to the time that the test is performed. You could have a negative test today despite being infected and a positive test tomorrow. These false-negative results may occur because it’s so early in the infection that there isn’t much viral protein present. Or it could be because of how the sample was obtained — maybe the swab wasn’t inserted deeply enough into the nose or wasn’t twirled around for long enough. Repeated testing can be helpful to address the concern of false-negative results; in fact, some tests specifically recommend repeat testing within a few days.
  • False-positive results may occur. A test may indicate infection when no such infection is present. It’s what happened on a now-infamous episode of The View. Two hosts quickly exited the set during a live broadcast because their COVID tests were positive. Soon after, their results were declared incorrect after further testing was done. Although false-positive results should be quite rare, manufacturing problems may make them more likely. In fact, some tests have been recalled because of an unexpectedly high rate of false-positive results.
  • Be prepared to download an app and follow instructions carefully. Rapid tests for COVID-19 typically require you to download an app and connect your phone or computer to the testing device through the app. Then you need to use a swab to collect a sample from inside your nose, apply the swab to the chemicals from the kit, and wait 15 minutes or so for your device to tell you the result. It’s not a particularly intuitive or consumer-friendly process. Many people may find it challenging.

The bottom line

Despite its limitations, rapid testing for COVID-19 is a strategy worth considering for holiday gatherings or group activities during which exposure to the virus is possible. Ideally, simplified rapid testing will become readily available at low (or no) cost soon. So, think about putting rapid COVID testing on your holiday to-do list, and consider offering tests to guests before you sit down for the turkey. It doesn’t take long, and the turkey probably won’t be ready on time anyway.