DEAR DR. ROACH: You probably have never gotten a question like this. How much mercury is in an old thermometer? A month ago, I wasn’t feeling well, so I took my temperature with an old thermometer that seemed to be taking too long to work. Long story short, I broke it into my hot cup of coffee, which I drank before I realized that I had broken the thermometer. I didn’t finish the whole cup. What happens to mercury when it’s in hot liquid? Does it sink or float? Is it visible? Does it have a taste or smell? What will happen to me? I didn’t call the poison center or my doctor; I was too embarrassed. I did end up being sick for a long time. I had a fever (I got a new thermometer), sore throat, terrible headache that lasted for days, my blood pressure was elevated and I vomited on the fifth day after ingesting the mercury. I don’t know if some of the symptoms were from a reaction to the Nyquil I had taken, which has never bothered me before. Any suggestions? — Anon.
ANSWER: I wasn’t embarrassed to call the Poison Control Center at 800-222-1222 — you should have called immediately, too. They confirmed the teaching I received: The mercury in a thermometer is elemental mercury, not the toxic organic mercury salts, so it would not normally be absorbed. Mercury is very heavy, much denser than water, so it would have sunk to the bottom of the coffee quickly, and odds are you didn’t even ingest much of it. It stays bright-silver, but you probably would not have seen it through the dark coffee. The expert I spoke with was just as concerned about the broken glass you might have ingested. I suspect the symptoms you describe have nothing to do with the mercury.
Even though the news I give you is good, I still would go to your doctor and discuss it. If someone came in to me with these symptoms, I would look for other reasons for them, not mercury.
DEAR DR. ROACH: I am a 68-year-old man with numbness in my hand for the past seven years. A neurologist diagnosed me with carpal tunnel syndrome and prescribed special gloves. I have no hand pain, only numbness when I elevate my arms, which also causes neck and shoulder pain. What can I do to get some relief? — B.W.
ANSWER: Carpal tunnel syndrome is caused by compression of the median nerve in the wrist. It may cause numbness and pain in the hands. The pain can travel up the arm, but rarely affects the arm above the elbow, and neck/shoulder pain makes me concerned that the nerve compression causing your hand numbness might be originating in your neck. It is possible you have both carpal tunnel syndrome and a “pinched nerve” in the neck, but compression of the nerve in the neck could cause all the symptoms you are telling me about. A careful exam usually sorts this out, but an MRI may be necessary to confirm.
DR. ROACH WRITES: I received some good information about my column on improving patient-physician communication. One piece of advice I received, and one which I often recommend for my patients, is to make a list of the important questions you want to ask your doctor. Another is to bring someone with you. Finally, doctors can help by providing not only verbal advice, but written advice as well. This isn’t always necessary or even possible, but it can really improve the patient’s understanding in many instances.
TO READERS: Questions about the common problem of uterine fibroids are answered in the booklet of that name. To obtain a copy, write: Dr. Roach — No. 1106, Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Enclose a check or money order (no cash) for $4.75 U.S./$6 Can. with the recipient’s printed name and address. Please allow four weeks for delivery.
Dr. Roach regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but will incorporate them in the column whenever possible. Readers may email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Health newsletters may be ordered from www.rbmamall.com.
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