DEAR DR. DONOHUE: How serious is bipolar disorder? Can you control it yourself? Is the brain lacking some element? – L.R.

Bipolar is a disorder in which people experience spells of deep depression alternating with spells of great energy and unbridled enthusiasm. It’s an emotional teeter-totter. In the high-energy phase, people feel invincible, are constantly on the go, can do with little sleep, have grandiose and unreasonable plans and are overly sociable. They become impulsive and make hasty and poor decisions. Sometimes they hallucinate, seeing things not present and hearing things not spoken. In the depressed phase, the opposite holds. People become reclusive, feel that all is hopeless, don’t want to get out of bed and are reluctant to interact with others. Those extremes are the two poles of bipolar disorder.

Yes, it is a serious illness. It can disrupt a person’s life.

Brain chemistry is involved, but the exact mechanisms are not completely understood. Genes have a major role too. Bipolar disorder runs in families.

People cannot control these mood swings by themselves. They will have times when the extremes of the two poles are not present but, predictably, the highs and lows return.

Medicines are most helpful in restoring stability to people’s lives. Lithium is a medicine with proven good results. There are others.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Please explain the proper care of a person who contracts shingles. Is it contagious? My doctor didn’t want me in his office. Other doctors say it’s not contagious.

I received the drug Famvir at the start. Now I take Lyrica and Percocet. I am miserable. How long is recovery? I have a mild case. I pity anyone with a difficult case. – E.B.

When the shingles rash is brand-new and consists of many small, fluid-filled blisters, virus is present in those blisters. It is theoretically possible for an adult or a child who has never come in contact with chickenpox to catch chickenpox, not shingles, from the blister fluid. The possibility is slight, but it does exist. Most adults – more than 90 percent – have been exposed to chickenpox, so adults are not in great danger. Newborn and young infants, before they’ve received the chickenpox vaccine, are at a little greater risk.

You do realize that shingles is the reawakened chickenpox virus that lives in the body from the time of infection to the time of death.

You don’t have shingles now. You have the dreadful shingles complication – postherpetic neuralgia. It’s pain coming from the nerve that the shingles virus traveled down on its journey to the skin. You are getting the appropriate medicines. The pain is usually gone in months, but it can linger for years.

The shingles vaccine was developed to prevent shingles and postherpetic neuralgia.

The shingles booklet describes this illness and its treatment in detail. Readers can obtain a copy by writing: Dr. Donohue – No. 1201, 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.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I was told that if you take glucosamine and chondroitin on a regular basis, they will raise your blood sugar. Is this true? Mine just came back at 103 mg/dL (5.7 mmol/L). – J.W.

These two arthritis supplements are quite popular. Glucosamine consists of glucose (a sugar) hooked to an amino acid, one of protein’s building blocks. It might raise blood sugar. Your value is just over the normal range (100) and isn’t something that should put you in a dither. Stop the glucosamine for a week and get your blood checked again. If it’s down, maybe it was glucosamine that raised it. To be fair, you have to keep your diet exactly what is usually is. Don’t change anything else.

Chondroitin doesn’t affect blood sugar.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Recently I learned that a close relative suffers from schizophrenia. My husband and I want to start a family. I am wondering if this new information should have any bearing on our having children. Should it? I don’t want to pass the gene to our children. – B.Z.

Whoa. You’re jumping to unfounded conclusions.

Genes are one factor in the appearance of schizophrenia, but definitely not the sole factor. If they were, both identical twins would suffer from the illness if one twin had it. Identical twins have the same set of genes. In sets of identical twins, both do not always suffer from it.

In fact, when one parent is affected, the chance of that parent’s children coming down with it is only one in 10.

There are too many unknowns about schizophrenia to make the kind of assumptions you’re making. Furthermore, I take it that the involved relative is not a first-degree relative – a mother, father, brother or sister. If that is the case, you have no reason not to go ahead with your plans to have a family.

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

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