Which Health Shortcuts Are Okay?

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  • Not all of us follow wellbeing advice on how to be healthy to the letter 100 per cent of the time. We’ve all been there at least once – the time you forgot to bring a toothbrush and reached for your partner’s, thinking nothing of it, or lost track of how many painkillers you’d taken to get rid of a banging headache. Sometimes, these shortcuts are harmless but some of the habits we slip into are causing us more harm than we realise. We asked the experts how to be healthy – which risks are okay which are too much of a gamble?

    Popping vitamins instead of five-a-day

    Nearly 90 per cent of us fail to achieve the recommended fruit and vegetable intake of five-a-day, so you’re not alone if you don’t manage it. But if the reason we need all that greenery is about nutrients, surely a high-dose vitamin pill is the answer? ‘Things like vitamins A, E, B and beta-carotene in vitamin pills are all isolated chemicals,’ says registered dietician Sue Baic. ‘They don’t impact health in the same way as nutrients from fruit and veg, which also contain essential phytochemicals, antioxidants and fibre – all essential in preventing cancer and heart disease.’ In fact, in large doses, some vitamins could be toxic and the latest guidelines from the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) advise against large doses of vitamin A, E or beta-carotene. 

    Expert tip

    The simple advice about choosing different coloured fruit and vegetables matters. ‘It’s the synergy of the nutrients in fruit and vegetables that’s protective,’ says Sue Baic. ‘That’s why a wide variety of colours is so important.’

    Taking one of someone else’s prescribed sleeping pills 

    When you’ve tried tossing, turning, reading, counting sheep, camomile, Horlicks and lavender, the sight of your partner’s Xanaz is like the sight of God in a sleepless hell. But is it worth it? ‘If you can take just one, then the odd sleeping pill won’t necessarily hurt you, but few people manage that,’ says Dr Cathy Moss, a GP in Northamptonshire. ‘For just about everyone, sleeping pills are addictive and, other than the terminally ill or those with severe jet lag, I never recommend them.’ 

    Expert tip

    If you have serious sleep problems, you’re far better off asking your GP for a referral to a sleep clinic that can examine the reasons for your insomnia. Treatment is available on the NHS.

    Not finishing a course of antibiotics

    You might feel better after a couple of days of antibiotics, but experts advise you finish the dose. ‘Clinical trials on these drugs’ effectiveness will be based on patients taking them over a certain time to kill off all the bacteria that’s causing your illness,’ says Dr Andrew Hayward, reader in infectious disease epidemiology at University College London. ‘If you don’t finish the course, you might end up with some bacteria left in your system, which could multiply and become resitant.’ Antibiotic resistance could mean that when you really need antibiotics in the future, they don’t work. 

    Expert tip

    Take antibiotics only when you really need them, but when you do, always finish the course. 

    Eating food past its use-by date

    According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), ‘use-by’ means exactly that: you shouldn’t use any food or drink after the date shown on the label, even if it looks and smells fine. ‘Especially if it’s cooked or raw meat, pâté, soft cheese or other food that bacteria might thrive on – throw it away,’ says environmental health practitioner Dr Lisa Ackerley. ‘I’m less cautious about ‘best-before’ dates, applied to foods such as hard cheese, whole fruit and vegetables, cereal, pasta and rice. Having these after their best-before dates is not likely to be harmful,it just means their quality, taste and texture might be compromised.’ However, the FSA specifically warns against eating eggs past their best-before date because they can contain salmonella bacteria, which could start to multiply after this date.

    Expert tip

    Check your fridge setting. ‘What makes food more dangerous is if your fridge isn’t set below 5°c,’ says Dr Ackerley. ‘Or if you took a long time to get food home and it warmed up after, say, a lunchtime shop or in a warm office.’ For more advice go to eatwell.gov.uk

    Using someone else’s toothbrush 

    Forgot your toothbrush? While two-thirds of women admit they would borrow one, this isn’t as innocuous as it seems. ‘Our mouths contain 3,000 different bacteria,’ says Dr Nigel Carter, chief executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, ‘so we should never share brushes.’ Like the bacteria in your gut, the balance found in your mouth is unique to you. ‘The transfer of just one bacteria from one person’s mouth to another can create the beginnings of gum disease,’ says Bryan Long, dentist at London’s Westover Clinic. If there is something bleeding in the mouth, sharing a toothbrush could also contribute to the spread of illnesses such as HIV and hepatitis. 

    Expert tip

    You’re better off keeping floss in your handbag and just using that. Flossing takes away 60 per cent of plaque in your mouth – that’s more than brushing. 

    Missing a mammogram

    Every British woman over 50 is entitled to a free mammogram every three years, yet one in four won’t turn up for theirs. ‘Breast screening not only detects six in every 1,000 breast cancers,’ says Professor Alastair Thompson, director of Breast Cancer Research for east Scotland, ‘it can usually mean such cancers are caught early and can be treatable with less invasive and intensive treatment.’ 

    Expert tip

    No one is going to slap you on the wrist for missing one. Simply call the screening unit – the number should be on the letter you receieve inviting you for the screening – and they will fit you in at the next available time. You won’t have to wait another three years. If you’ve lost the letter, call your GP and ask for it. What if you’re one of the 25 per cent of us who never turn up? ‘It’s never too late to start – we see women who might have missed ten years of mammograms and we’re happy to put them onto the screening programme,’ says Professor Thompson. 

    Avoiding the dentist for year, until you have toothache

    ‘Pain is usually a sign that you need expensive work, such as root canals or tooth extractions,’ says Bryan Long, dentist at London’s Westover Clinic. But only half the population attend their regular dental health check-ups. The main risk with not going to the dentist is gum disease, the most common tooth problem in the UK, which can lead to tooth loss and has also been linked to diabetes, strokes and heart disease. ‘Your dentist can spot gum disease early and manage it with regular cleaning and other less invasive procedures. But once you’ve got pain, it’s probably an indication that the damage is irreversible,’ says Bryan Long. 

    Expert tip

    If your teeth are healthy, most dentists recommend annual rather than six-monthly visits. Call the Dental Health Foundation’s helpline on 0845 063 1188. 

    Taking three painkillers instead of two

    We spend some £500 million a year on painkillers and two-thirds of pharmacists have customers they suspect are addicted to over-the-counter drugs. But who, in the grip of the mother of all headaches hasn’t been tempted to pop an extra one? ‘Taking three painkillers as a one-off thing is okay, as long as you stay within your 24-hour limit,’ says GP Cathy Moss. For paracetamol, the limit is usually eight tablets per 24 hours. ‘You only need to take three paracetamol four times a day and you’re at risk of liver damage. In very rare cases, this can be life-threatening.’ 

    Expert tip

    Always read the label and know the 24-hour limit on dosage. Check ingredients in other medications as some over-the-counter cold medicines contain paracetamol which, if taken on top of three aspirin, could tip you over the safe dosage. 

    Never using your reading glasses

    Nine out of ten of us would prefer to lose a limb than the use of our eyes but, according to Professor Oliver Backhouse, consultant ophthalmic surgeon at Yorkshire Eye Hospital, not wearing your reading glasses does nothing to increase your risk. ‘For most people over 45, reading or seeing fine print will be more comfortable with reading glasses, but other than giving yourself a king-size headache, you can’t physically do damage to your eyes.’

    Expert tip

    The one thing we can do to look after our eyes? If you are over 40, you should have a glaucoma test. Caught early, it’s treatable with eye drops. But once glaucoma has caused vision loss, you can never get that lost sight back.

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