DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I am an 86-year-old man who is a caregiver for my 90-year-old wife, who has dementia. I try to cope with the many problems my situation entails. The latest ones have aggravated an intolerable itching. I try to resist scratching, but it feels so good that I am overwhelmed and go ahead and scratch. Often, my skin bleeds. Friends say nerves are to blame. Can you name a product that will clear my skin? — F.C.
ANSWER: Generalized itching without a rash can come from kidney problems, an overactive or underactive thyroid gland, hidden cancer, diabetes, iron deficiency and many medicines. Most often, it comes from dry skin. Winter weather and indoor heating dehydrate the skin. Rehydration is the answer. A humidifier that keeps the home’s humidity between 40 percent and 60 percent is worth considering. Use only mild soaps, like Dove, when you shower or bathe. Keep the water tepid, not hot. After bathing, blot yourself with a towel. Leave a little moisture on the skin and then apply a moisturizing agent like Vaseline. It comes in many forms, some with push caps that deliver the cream right to your hands. Carmol 20 cream, AmLactin cream and Aquaphor ointment are other good products. Capsaicin cream (Zostrix is one brand name), used for pain control, also can control itching. Don’t wear wool next to your skin; wear cotton garments.
I know scratching is all but irresistible. But you do have to control it. It damages the skin and opens it to infections, and the relief is short-lived. If you must scratch, put on gloves before you do. They’ll save your skin.
Taking a sedating antihistamine before going to sleep might reduce nighttime itching. Benadryl is such a product. Start with the lowest dose, 12.5 mg, to see if you tolerate it and to see if it makes you groggy the next day.
This is as far as you should go with self-treatment. After this, you need input from a doctor who can examine you. If you have a rash, see the doctor right away.
Stress does worsen itching. You might want to ask the doctor for a medicine that can keep you calm in the face of so much worry.
DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I am 64 and have bitten my fingernails for my entire life. I remember as a preschooler seeing my older brother bite his, and I immediately started the habit myself.
I have otherwise followed only the basic hygienic routines of washing my hands after using the bathroom and before eating. I am quite healthy and probably catch fewer illnesses than most of my friends. It has occurred to me that the more stringent antibacterial and antiviral routines we adopt, the more we inhibit development of our natural immunities. What do you think? With my fingers in my mouth several times a day, I must have exposed and immunized myself to everything. — M.R.
ANSWER: Yours is an imaginative theory, but it has some flaws. You haven’t exposed yourself to every known virus and bacterium. For instance, the H1N1 virus, swine flu, is a relatively new germ against which most people have little immunity. You can pick up a germ like this when you bite your fingernails. That’s only one example. There are many more.
How hard have you worked on breaking this habit? Does your brother still bite his nails?
DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I am 82 and have taken Tums for many years. A friend told me that a doctor on TV said Tums will harm the heart. Please tell me if that is correct?
ANSWER: Did your friend say how the doctor said Tums hurts the heart?
Tums is calcium carbonate. Millions of people take calcium carbonate to restore strength to their bones. Millions more use Tums as an antacid. I am one of those people. We’re not falling over like flies.
I have never heard or seen that Tums is harmful to the heart. I intend to keep on using them.
Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Readers may also order health newsletters from www.rbmamall.com.