Unusual cravings can be sign of trouble

Q: I used to crave ice just like a drug addict. The first thing in the morning, I had to have it. I would get a large soft drink and ask for extra ice. I didn’t care about the pop — it was the ice I wanted.

I went to my doctor for a checkup because I felt tired and would get out of breath easily. My test showed that I was severely anemic, with a blood count of six. My physician was so concerned that he called me at home the next evening and told me not to exert myself in any way until they did further testing.

This had happened so gradually that I didn’t realize I was slowly bleeding to death. Further tests showed I had an iron deficiency caused by extremely heavy periods. Iron supplements quickly brought my count up to normal ranges, and my cravings for ice went away immediately. They never returned, though it has been many years.

A: It is worth remembering that unusual cravings, whether for ice, cornstarch, clay or even popcorn, can be the result of a mineral deficiency. Anyone who discovers such a craving should ask to have iron or zinc levels tested. Usually, as in your case, correcting the deficiency banishes the craving. This is especially important for children who may be eating paint chips, since their craving could lead to lead poisoning (Australian Family Physician, May 2013).

Q: I read a letter in your column from a person who had a lung infection and asthma. I seem to remember the infection was hard to detect.

The doctor prescribed several rounds of antibiotics to clear it up. Now, the person is free of asthma. I would like to discuss this possible treatment with my asthma specialist. Any information you can send would be appreciated.

A: There is growing evidence that hard-to-treat asthma may be associated with chronic bacterial lung infections (Current Allergy and Asthma Reports, December 2013). This idea is still controversial. To provide you with details you can discuss with your doctor, we are sending you a book we published by David L. Hahn, M.D., M.S., about using azithromycin for asthma treatment. The book, “A Cure for Asthma? What Your Doctor Isn’t Telling You — and Why,” is available at www.PeoplesPharmacy.com.

Q: I use dandruff shampoo every other day but get no relief. I am a 57-year-old woman.

A: If you have been using the same dandruff shampoo for weeks on end, that may be contributing to the problem. Dermatologists suggest that it is best to alternate different anti-dandruff ingredients.

In practical terms, that means using a product with selenium sulfide (Selsun Blue, Head & Shoulders Clinical Strength, Exsel) for a week or two and then switching to a tar-based product such as Neutrogena T/Gel, Denorex or Biotene H-24. After a few weeks, switch again to a zinc-pyrithione-based product such as Denorex Everyday or Head & Shoulders.

An anti-fungal shampoo such as Nizoral with ketoconazole also could be thrown into the mix. Changing the product you use can keep the Malassezia yeast responsible for those itchy flakes from developing resistance to one chemical.

Pretreating your scalp before shampooing with a home remedy such as apple-cider vinegar, original amber Listerine or milk of magnesia also may contribute to success. Some people tell us that making an herbal tea with sage or rosemary and using it as a rinse helps fight dandruff, but these herbs sometimes trigger skin reactions.

Q: What are your thoughts on the use of the natural sweetener xylitol to aid in the treatment of ear infections? I have read that xylitol syrup is used in Europe to treat infants’ ear infections, with some success.

A: Xylitol, also called birch sugar, is a natural low-calorie sweetener that is sometimes used as a sugar substitute. A recent report demonstrates that the syrup is no better than placebo for preventing children’s ear infections (Pediatrics online, Jan. 6, 2014). Children who are old enough to chew gum, however, get fewer ear infections if they chew xylitol gum (two pieces five times daily), according to a systematic review published in Denmark (Ugeskrift for Laeger, Feb. 25, 2013).

Email Joe and Teresa Graedon on their website at www.PeoplesPharmacy.com. Their newest book is “Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them.”