DEAR DR. DONOHUE: My dad is 88, and he lives with us. He is active, very alert and interested in many things. He is out of the house socializing more than I am. His trouble is itching. He scratches all the time, and sometimes there’s blood on his sheets from the scratching he does at night. How can he put an end to this? – E.S.

Itching is a common complaint of older people. With age, the skin’s oil glands dry up, and so does skin without oil. Oil forms an undetectable film that keeps the skin hydrated. Dry skin itches. Itching usually gets worse in the winter, when central heating warms a house and lowers the humidity.

Your dad should shower or bathe only three times a week, and he should use a mild soap. The water temperature should be tepid. Hot water aggravates itching.

When he’s through washing, he should pat himself with a towel but leave some dampness on the skin. Then he should apply a moisturizer – Moisturel, Curel or Eucerin are some commonly available moisturizers, but there are many others. Petroleum jelly is good and cheap, and the white variety is less greasy.

He has to control the scratching. Scratching gives a brief respite to itching, but the itch comes back stronger than before. And scratched skin turns to leather. A bath in which 8 ounces of colloidal oatmeal is put in the water soothes itchy skin. Such a bath before going to bed can stop nighttime itchiness. An antihistamine at night also would help.

Dry skin is not the only cause of an itch. Some very terrible illnesses can cause it. Hodgkin’s disease (lymph node cancer), lymphoma (another lymph node cancer), stomach and lung cancer, kidney failure, thyroid malfunction and diabetes are possible causes. Many maladies that are primarily manifested in the skin also cause itching. Psoriasis and scabies are two examples. If, after a trial of skin hydration, the itch doesn’t leave your dad, he has to see a doctor for the outside possibility of one of the important causes of itchiness.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: My 30-year-old son had several blood tests come back abnormal. After further testing, it was determined he has Gilbert’s disease. I have never heard of this and wonder what it means. When he was born, he was jaundiced and had to have the light treatment. When he was growing up, the whites of his eyes would look yellow to me at times, but they always cleared up without any treatment.

What are the long-range effects of this? What should he do, if anything?

He is a fireman-paramedic, and they don’t seem alarmed about this condition, but I am curious. – R.G.

Gilbert’s disease shouldn’t be called a disease. It’s a harmless quirk.

Every day a certain number of red blood cells are broken down, and their parts are recycled for making new red blood cells. Bilirubin is part of that breakdown process. The liver disposes of it. Bilirubin is a pigment. If the bilirubin blood level rises, the whites of the eyes and the skin turn yellow.

People with Gilbert’s disease have a liver that, from time to time, is a bit sluggish in processing bilirubin. The yellow color doesn’t last long and doesn’t make the person sick. This often happens if a person misses a few meals, has an alcoholic drink or comes down with a slight fever.

Close to 8 percent of the population has this condition. It’s not related to the jaundice he had when he was a newborn.

DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Our 14-year-old daughter was recently diagnosed with a congenital heart disease called dextrocardia. How bad is this? – R.C.

With dextrocardia, the heart is on the right side instead of the left. If the heart has no defects other than its misplacement in the chest, then this is just an oddity. Sometimes, however, it is associated with other heart problems. In favor of the chances that she has no other heart troubles is the fact that she has gone 14 years without any signs or symptoms of heart disease.

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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