Why a simple pulse check could prevent you having a stroke


Heart disease deaths have halved in the last 30 years. And whilst that’s incredibly good news – experts are  now predicting a huge  three-fold increase in the irregular heart beat condition atrial fibrillation .

 I’ve been writing about the AF time bomb effect in today’s Daily Mail Good Health section http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2228350/Could-dodgy-ticker-realise-How-DIY-test-irregular-pulse-help-save-life.html?ito=feeds-newsxml .

Up to a million Britons are estimated to have AF (caused by an electrical fault in the heart) and this is predicted to increase to three million by 2050 as the populations ages.Some cardiologists are even saying it is the new epidemic in cardiac health.

Why should we care?  Well having atrial fibrillation is dangerous because it increases the risk of stroke by  five times. This happens because blood can pool in the heart and create clots, which may travel to other parts of the body including the brain and block an artery.

Weirdly though –  few people  seem to have even heard of AF and even  some of those who have been diagnosed – don’t realise it puts them at risk of stroke.  There’s still this idea that it isn’t really that  serious if your heart  skips a beat or is  generally all over the place. Patients I’ve interviewed have variously been told they’ve been drinking too much coffee or  suffering from stress – and in some cases misdiagnosed with epilepsy  – and often take years to get an AF diagnosis .  Some elderly people suffer blackouts and falls because they  have undiagnosed AF. The average delay in diagnosis is two and a half years.

Too often patients are not diagnosed with AF until they have suffered a stroke – an event that might  be have been prevented if their AF had been diagnosed and treated earlier. The Atrial Fibrillation Association says 8,000 strokes and 6,000 deaths a year could be prevented if AF cases were better controlled.

Treatments are changing

This is now about to change: last week the European Society of Cardiology called for anyone with an irregular heartbeat to see a doctor, explaining that in some cases  treatment  with blood thinning drugs can reduce the risk of stroke by 70 per cent. Unfortunately at the moment only 18 per cent of patients with atrial fibrillation are thought to be on anticoagulant drugs. This is mainly because many AF patients are undiagnosed, but also because one of the main  treatments – a drug called warfarin  has side effects, interacts with specific foods and drinks and needs monitoring visits via  a hospital clinic. However there are newer drugs – Pradaxa and Rivaroxaban – the first for stroke prevention in almost 60 years which are easier to take and do not require monitoring and now approved by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

Symptom checker

If you’re wondering  what the symptoms are – the answer is they vary – but can include a feeling that your heart has skipped a beat, followed by a racing of the heart, an erratic heartbeat, strong palpitations or a fluttering feeling in your chest like butterflies or a ‘ flopping fish’ sensation. Other patients experience chest and throat pressure that mimic a heart attack or a heavy ache in the top of the left arm. In the elderly sometimes the only symptoms are breathlessness and feeling tired.

Why it’s worth checking your pulse

Taking your pulse is an easy way to check your heart beat  – an irregular heart beat doesn’t always mean you have AF though – that can only be confirmed by an electrocardiogram – but it can be a sign that you have a heart rhythm problem. If you want more information on how to check your pulse  go to knowyourpulse.org.

PS : This very non PC video of Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren pretty much sums up AF – enjoy …. (thanks  Dr Trish for the inspiration)

Did you know E.coli bacteria can reproduce a whole generation in 20 minutes?

It’s November and peak season  for winter nasties including the norovirus (the winter vomiting bug). How can you keep the bugs at bay? Hm mm well, if you’re struggling in on the Tube or bus every day and work in a crowded office it can be tricky (unless you turn Japanese and wear a mask), but on the home front there are some useful things you can do. Basically I’m referring to keeping your home clean –  I mean really clean – and that includes taps in the bathroom, toilet seats, shower screens, draining boards, dishwashers and kitchen sink plug holes, which when you hear about all the microbes multiplying at the rate of knots around your home is easier said than done.

The bacteria that bug us most

I heard Professor Mark Fielder, a microbiology expert from Kingston University, speak at a recent briefing on household cleanliness and was shocked to discover for instance that microbes from your toilet can be propelled onto  the atmosphere and land  on your toothbrush and hand towels if you forget to put the lid down when you flush!

Bacteria are tiny, single celled (or noncellular) organisms which are found everywhere. They are around one micrometre (one thousandth of a millimetre) in size but can multiply extremely quickly in the right conditions. For instance E.coli can replicate a whole generation in 20 minutes and within eight hours a single bacterium on a damp cloth can multiply to six million.

Dodgy chicken

Does it matter I hear you lazy types out there say? Aren’t we all too clean today anyway? Have you not heard of the hygiene hypothesis* you protest?(*which  by the way argues allergies are on the increase because our immune systems don’t encounter enough germs in childhood). Point taken – but apparently you can still use disinfectants and not kill those sort of useful organisms off. Unfortunately, hygiene hypothesis or not, if we don’t change our dish cloths once a week and disinfect our worktops – sooner or later we’re going to run into problems with food poisoning. In fact the World Health Organisation says that 40 per cent of all notifiable food poisoning outbreaks originate in the home. The Food Standards Agency’s Chief Scientist estimates  there are around a million cases of  food borne illnesses/ food poisoning cases resulting in 20,000 hospital admissions and 500 deaths. In the Chief Scientist’s report 2011/12 campylobacter  (a nasty microbe found in raw and undercooked poultry) is listed as one of the most common illnesses in England and Wales, responsible for an estimated 52 per cent of all cases of food poisoning. What is particularly worrying is that camplyobacter cases have risen every year since 2004, with nearly 72,000 cases reported in the UK in  2011 – clearly we aren’t getting the message about  those dodgy chopping boards.


Kitchen danger ( my kitchen on a good day actually)

In this era of antibacterial sprays and wipes you’d think most of us would have wised up to the dangers lurking on our kitchen surfaces – but according to a new survey by Zoflora (makers of the nation’s favourite disinfectant) just 54 per cent of us rate the kitchen as the most important place to keep clean and 27 per cent of us do not consider either their kitchen, toilet or bathroom as their top priority when cleaning. A scientific study conducted back in 1998 looked for levels of faecal coliforms (think you can guess what that they are) at 14 places split evenly between kitchens and bathrooms.It found the kitchen was more heavily contaminated than the bathroom and the toilet seat was actually the least contaminated site. The areas most heavily contaminated were the places that were moist and/or frequently touched – including the kitchen sink, bath drain areas and kitchen sink taps.

If you’ll excuse me  I’m off to disinfect my worktops……and I’m not liking the look of my keyboard much either…

PS  Feed your paranoia on this ….

What’s up with your health?

This is my blog for health and medical news junkies like myself who can’t get enough of  all the fascinating developments in the medical world.

I’ve been writing about health, medicine  and well being in the UK  national media  for a while and like to mull over what’s new and whether it matters or not .Unlike an article in a medical journal though, I not only speak to the  doctors  in the know but also the patients who have experienced the symptoms of  diseases at first hand. I think you need both perspectives and that these days most patients are pretty well informed about their condition and don’t want to be patronised. The best doctors (and there are lots of these around) don’t wince when you say that you’ve been reading about a new drug or treatment – they’ll welcome your interest in your own health and the fact you’re taking some responsibility for it.

This summer I’m really pleased to have been commended in the Medical Journalists’ Association Summer Awards in the best consumer freelance category.

All views are my own and not those of any publication I write for.