Don't Panic About the Plague

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Getty Images

If reports of measles and whooping cough making a reappearance aren't alarming enough, the news that three people in New Mexico have contracted plague this year might have you on edge. But these aren't the only recent cases of plague in the state—the disease appeared in both 2016 and 2015, causing one death—or even in the U.S.

In 2015, a child contracted the plague in Yosemite National Park, and so did a tourist from Georgia; park officials closed a campground where they discovered two dead squirrels infected with the disease. That same year in Colorado, a pitbull infected four humans with pneumonic plague before being put down, and two other Colorado residents died from plague, including a 16-year-old boy.

It all seems very scary, but don't go sealing yourself in protective gear yet. There's less to fear about plague than you may think. While the public is prone to panic that a medieval illness, which wiped out a quarter of Europe in the Middle Ages during the Black Death, has suddenly arisen from obscurity, the truth is: Plague never left.

Though we haven't seen a widespread epidemic of plague since the early 20th century, thanks to advances in sanitation and medicine, and there hasn't been a human-to-human case of transmission in America since 1924, an average of seven new cases are reported every year in the U.S. From 2010 to 2015, there were 3248 cases, including 584 deaths, reported worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Yersinia pestis, the flea-borne bacteria that's most often responsible for plague, infects rodents; humans are “incidental hosts,” who can acquire the infection if bitten by an infected flea or rodent. Compared to the 14th century, when the Black Death spread wildly, or the late 19th century, when 10 million people died of the disease after it traveled from Hong Kong to port cities worldwide, most people today live in more sanitary conditions and have less frequent contact with the rodents most likely to carry the infected fleas. Today, 95 percent of plague cases originate in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar.

The most common of the three strains of plague is the notorious bubonic plague, which causes painful swollen lymph nodes (also called buboes) and was responsible for Europe's Black Death—so named because internal hemorrhages caused by the infection make the skin appear black. But the pitbull that infected four Colorado residents carried the rarer respiratory strain of pneumonic plague, which is contagious when the infected person coughs up infected particulates. There is also septicemic plague, the most lethal form, which infects the blood, and most often occurs when plague virus has gone undetected and is allowed to spread.

In the U.S., you're generally only at risk of contracting plague in late spring to early fall if you've been in a rural or semi-rural area of the West, especially New Mexico, Arizona, or Colorado, and have had contact with fleas or rodents including ground squirrels, chipmunks, prairie dogs, or rats. And even then, the risk is low.

Only the pneumatic version of plague is contagious from human to human (though untreated bubonic plague can become pneumonic), but you have to be coughed upon, or receive fluid from an infected person upon an open wound or directly into your mouth or nose.

Plague symptoms mimic any flu—fever, chills, headache, difficulty breathing or coughing—but people have been known to cough up blood with the pneumonic variety. If you've been in a rural area, or camping, and come down with these symptoms two to three days later, it's best to go to a hospital.

Now for some good news: While untreated plague is quite deadly, people with plague who are treated with antibiotics within 24 hours of infection have strong recovery rates.

So while it's good to be aware and take precautions, the chances of another plague pandemic remain slim.

This story was originally published in 2015 and has been updated. 

Should You Take a Daily Aspirin to Prevent Heart Disease?

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iStock

For decades, physicians have recommended that older patients or those who have had a cardiac event like a heart attack take a low-dose aspirin daily. Acting as a blood thinner, aspirin can help prevent blood clots from forming and causing more cardiovascular issues.

This wisdom was examined in a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which looked at more than 19,000 elderly people and found no measurable benefit to the practice for people aged 65 and over. Worse, aspirin may actually cause harm by increasing the risk of bleeding.

So, who should be taking aspirin as a preventative measure, and when?

The most recent study, which began in 2010 and followed subjects 65 and older with no prior cardiovascular disease taking either 100 milligrams of aspirin daily or a placebo, found that the risk of bleeding in the stomach or brain was increased in those taking aspirin (3.8 percent in the aspirin group versus 2.8 percent in the placebo group). The rate of disease-free survival among subjects was no higher among those taking aspirin compared to those on the placebo.

Aspirin has been shown to help some patient populations, however. For people who have already suffered a heart attack or stroke, aspirin can reduce the risk of a recurrence. According to the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force, adults aged 50 to 59 who have a 10 percent or greater chance of developing cardiovascular disease, typically as the result of lifestyle, genetic, and dietary factors, will likely benefit from a daily dose. As that patient population ages and risk of bleeding increases, it becomes a risk-to-benefit assessment. The task force found insufficient information for aspirin use to prevent cardiovascular disease in people under age 50.

The American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association both recommend aspirin to decrease cardiovascular events in patients with risk as low as 6 percent over a 10-year period. For adults with only average risk, no medical authority currently recommends the regimen.

As with any medical issue, it’s best to consult with your doctor about taking aspirin to prevent cardiovascular disease. Only your specific medical history can help determine whether it’s right for you. And if you're currently taking aspirin and have concerns based on the newest research, don't stop taking it until you've had a chance to discuss it with your provider.

[h/t NPR]

5 Ways to Express Your Gratitude (and Reap Its Benefits)

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iStock

Bad days happen to the best of us: The alarm doesn't go off, your kids are fussy, you get stuck in traffic, and as soon as you get to work, you spill coffee down the front of your favorite shirt. And then, to add insult to injury, you log onto Facebook and are greeted by the smiling face of your old college roommate, who is just so #blessed. Lucky her.

But is her life really better than yours? It turns out that being grateful for what you have—even if some days, what you have appears to be a disaster—is mostly an exercise in self-reflection. Here are some simple things you can incorporate into your daily routine in order to better appreciate the good things you have going in your life—and doing so, studies have found, can improve your physical and emotional health.

1. KEEP A GRATITUDE JOURNAL.

Gratitude journal on a pink background.
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The task is easy: Each week, take the time to write down and reflect on five things that you're grateful for. "These can be small things, but big things are fine, too," Jo-Ann Tsang, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, says.

A 2003 study by researchers from the University of Miami and the University of California, Davis [PDF], found that students who recorded the things they're grateful for felt better about their lives, exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical problems, were more likely to make progress towards personal goals, and were more optimistic about their upcoming week than students who were tasked with writing down hassles or neutral life events.

For the greatest benefits, focus on people, rather than things, in your journaling, and go into detail about why you appreciate each item. Also, don't feel compelled to journal daily: According to the University of California, Berkeley's Greater Good blog, journaling once per week was found to be more beneficial than daily journaling.

2. DO A 30-DAY CHALLENGE.

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Committing to a full month of reflection not only boosts your gratitude awareness, but gives you the satisfaction of completing a goal. Lisa Ryan, gratitude expert and author of Express Gratitude, Experience Good, suggests writing down three to five things that you're grateful for each day for the next 30 days. As with gratitude journaling, this exercise works best if you're specific. Instead of writing that you're grateful for your husband, Ryan says, "you should write, 'I'm so thankful that Scott cooked a great dinner last night.'"

If you choose to write your list in the morning, you'll set a positive expectation for your day. Writing it in the evening will remind you of the good the day brought, even if it was a particularly hard day to get through. It will also help you fall asleep faster and sleep better, Ryan says.

3. HOST A GRATITUDE PARTY.

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If you're going through a hard time, write down the names of the people who have helped you in your life. Then, plan a party in their honor. Amy Newmark, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Gratitude, says, "You'll find that in planning your guest list, you'll start noticing how many people are there for you extending a helping hand every day. This will make you more grateful, and you'll feel less alone every day."

4. GAIN SOME PERSPECTIVE.

Man hugging his dog.
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Thinking about the alternatives can help you appreciate what you have, Newmark says. For example, are you stuck emptying the dishwasher again? Think about the fact that you have a warm, comfortable home filled with kitchen appliances. Are you running around in a frenzy, with no time for yourself? Think about how full your life is. "Would you rather not have these errands to do, these kids to drive around, this job that creates all this work?" Newmark asks.

5. SPREAD KINDNESS.

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The very fact that you have the ability to do something nice for someone else will make you feel more confident of your own situation, more aware of your own capabilities, and more grateful for the blessings in your own life. Keep a list of the good deeds you perform—it can be as simple as holding a door for someone or letting a mother with a crying child go ahead of you in line at the store, Newmark says.

And find the right "dosage" for you. For some people, doing five kind things on one day each week, rather than doing five good things throughout the week, showed more positive benefits. Others, however, get more of a boost from daily positive activity [PDF].

This story first ran in 2016.

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