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General Health Matters: E - M

The General Health Matters series covers health topics pertinent to student life in order to promote a safe and healthy university experience.

Topics in this series include:

Back Pain
Body Art
Common Cold
Comp. Therapies
Contact Lenses
Eating Disorders
Finding a Doctor
Gas and Gas Pain
Keeping Warm
Pink Eye
Sore Throat
Sprains & Strains
Summer Sores
Viral Gastroenteritis

If there are topics of interest you would like to see in our Health Matters series, send us an health [dot] promotion [at] mcgill [dot] ca (e-mail) .

E - M

Click to download a pdf version. General Health Matters: Ears


Ear wax is not dirty!
Contrary to popular belief, ears do not need any special cleaning, washing or drying because they have their own cleaning system. Wax, dead skin and other particles collect in the outer part of the ear canal as natural protection for the ears. The external ear canal is lined with thick skin containing oil glands and sweat.

Ear wax is a protective barrier containing enzymes. The wax stops contaminants from penetrating the skin and the enzymes help prevent infection.

The ear canal is self-cleaning so wax build-up is not a problem for most people. Wax accumulates, dries up and falls out of the ear or is washed off. In the mistaken notion of “ear cleanliness,” ear wax is often impacted by probing the ear with a finger, Q-tip or other assorted objects.

The smallest thing that should go in the ear is the elbow.”
Gentle washing with a finger in a wet washcloth will do the job. Dirt is driven further in when we interfere with the body's natural self-cleaning mechanism. This allows bacteria to enter, causing itchiness, irritation and infection.

Q-tips should never be used in the ears!

A specialist quoted in the Complete Canadian Health Guide states: “It is unfortunately very common to see people develop itchy ears, or even lose their hearing due to cleansing of the ears with objects such as Q-tips that can pierce the ear drum and traumatize the ear. I implore people not to clean or dry their ears. If, for anatomical reasons, the ear does not take care of itself, please let a health care professional take care of it. To remove water from the ears, it is best to simply shake your head from side to side.

People are sometimes alarmed when their hearing becomes muffled or diminished due to a build-up of wax in their ears. If you do suffer from blocked ears, consult a nurse/health educator at Student Health Services. After examining your ears, a health care provider can decide the best method to remove any impacted ear wax.


Click to download a pdf version. General Health Matters: Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders

This complex emotional disorder involves self-starvation which is characterized by dramatic weight loss. The desire to be thin is all eclipsing, and is accompanied by a terror of gaining weight. Food, weight, and body image become the focus of life for an anorexic, even though they are usually underweight.

Consequences of anorexia can include weakened muscle and bone tissue, loss of menstrual periods, sensitivity to cold, loss of hair and teeth, discoloured skin, low heart rate and blood pressure, kidney disfunction, constipation, and sometimes death.


Bulimia involves cycles of binging (eating huge amounts of food), followed by purging (usually vomiting, but also laxative use and excessive exercise). Like anorexics, bulimics fear becoming fat.

In general, vomiting or laxative use does not help in weight loss. Calories are absorbed much more quickly by the body than nutrients are, so by the time the purge takes place, the calories are already absorbed. The danger of malnutrition, however, is great; all Bulimics are in physical danger from mineral and nutrient loss.

Bulimics are not necessarily underweight-- many are of average or above average weight. Consequences of bulimia include stress on the esophagus, stomach, and heart, muscle cramping because of repeated vomiting, cardiac arrhythmias, water retention, erosion of enamel of teeth, swelling of the salivary glands, and possible death

Compulsive Overeating

This is also referred to as binge-eating disorder. A binge is an uncontrollable bout of eating. Most over-eaters can neither stop nor control their binging, and in many cases, they eat extremely large amounts of high-calorie food (as many as 20 000 calories in a sitting). The major consequence is obesity and its associated health risks.

If you think you might have an eating disorder...

If you think you might have an eating disorder, counseling and other help is important. Friends and family of those with eating disorders should show support, concern, and caring, while respecting the person's need for privacy and autonomy.

When you are with the person, it is important to focus on activities that do not involve food, and to avoid conversations and comments about food, weight and appearance (even positive comments like "you look good today"). Learning more about the disorders and exploring your own body image issues will help you to help yourself and others.

The following organizations may be able to provide help and information:

Douglas Hospital Eating Disorder Unit: (514) 761-6131 (ext.2895)

National Eating Disorder Information Centre: (416) 340-4156


Click to download a pdf version. General Health Matters: Fever


A fever is usually a sign of a viral or bacterial infection. Viruses and bacteria have a hard time surviving at temperatures higher than body temperature so a fever is the body's way of fighting an infection. Fever increases blood flow to speed up the body's defense actions.

  • High Fever = above 39.0ºC (102.2ºF)
  • Fever = 37.5 — 39.0ºC (99.5 — 102.2ºF)
  • Normal = 36.5 — 37.5ºC (97.9 — 99.5ºF)
Always have a thermometer in your household to take your temperature when needed. Use a digital thermometer as directed.

How to take an oral temperature

  • Wait 10 minutes after drinking hot or cold liquids
  • Place the tip of the oral thermometer under your tongue, on one side toward the back of the mouth
  • Hold the thermometer with your lips, not your teeth
  • Do not breathe through your mouth while taking your temperature as it will lower the temperature and give an inaccurate reading
  • Leave the thermometer in place for 3 minutes before removing to read the temperature

What to do if you have a fever

  • Take acetaminophen every 4 hours until the temperature returns to normal
  • Drink plenty of fluids, at least 4 to 8 cups, per day. This includes water, fruit juice, etc.
  • Take your temperature every 4 hours or when you feel your fever is worsening
  • If you start shivering, dress warmly until it stops, then dress lightly again
  • Don't exercise
  • Don't use alcohol rubs
  • For high fevers, put cold packs or cool wash cloths on your neck, groin, and under the armpits REST

When should you see a doctor?

If you have any of the following symptoms:

  • A fever higher than 39ºC (102.2ºF) taken orally that won't go down after self-care
  • A high fever accompanied by a serious medical condition
  • Prolonged fever for more than 3 days
  • You have a severe headache, are hallucinating or are acting confused
  • You have a stiff neck (you can't touch your chin to your chest)
  • Abnormal breathing or pain in the chest with deep breaths
  • You have redness, swelling, and pain anywhere on the body
  • Persistent ear pain or pain in the sinuses (face)
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Urinary pain, burning, or frequency
  • Green, yellow, or bloody-colored discharge from the nose, throat, or ears
  • Diarrhea, vomiting or abdominal pain


Click to download a pdf version. General Health Matters: Finding a Doctor

Finding a Doctor

At some point in our lives, almost all of us will have to look for a doctor. Picking a name from the Yellow Pages isn’t always the most successful method, so here are a few tips:

Ask friends or family. They may be able to recommend a doctor they like, identify doctors they didn’t like, or refer you to a doctor who is not publicly taking new patients.

Neighbours or local pharmacists in a new town will probably be able to give you the names of local doctors. The College des Médecins du Quebec (514-933-4441, 1-888-633-3246) can give you a list of specialists, but they don’t provide the names of family physicians who are accepting new patients.

It’s a good idea and generally more convenient to choose a doctor close to either your home or work/school.

When you call the doctor’s office, ask about the gender of the doctor (if you have a preference), how long appointments are booked for, what the waiting period for an appointment is, etc.

Check out the waiting room and doctor’s offices. Is the general atmosphere comfortable? Is there recent health information available? If you feel comfortable, talk to some of the people in the waiting room. Are they content with the services? Is the support staff friendly and helpful?

Search while you’re healthy. When you’re sick, you won’t have the energy to spend time finding a doctor you really like.

Find a doctor you’re comfortable talking to. Eventually you’re going to have to talk about private stuff, or let this doctor put their hands inside you; you need to feel comfortable.

Trust your own feelings. If you don’t feel comfortable with a doctor or in a doctor’s office, don’t see that doctor anymore.

Discuss your opinions of health care with your doctor, to ensure that s/he respects them. If you prefer alternative therapies, you should be able to pursue that with your doctor.

It may seem like a lot of work to find the best doctor for you, but in the long run it is worth it for both your physical and mental health.

Once you find a doctor

Make appointments rather than drop-in visits whenever possible. This gives you more time and a more relaxed doctor. If you need more time than the usual appointment length, tell the receptionist when booking your appointment.

Be on time. While doctors can run late, this is often due to late patients, and not having enough time booked for appointments.

Know ahead of time what you want to talk to your doctor about, and do yourself the service of discussing every concern, no matter how irrelevant or minor it may seem.

Ask questions, especially if you don’t understand, or if you disagree with your doctor’s advice. If there are alternatives, your doctor should be willing to discuss them with you.

Doctor’s Responsibilities

Doctors should respect their patients and provide high quality service. If yours doesn’t, find one who does. Physicians must:

Be genuinely interested in your well-being. They should examine you carefully and/or get all the necessary information before making a diagnosis. They should also provide information on illness prevention and health promotion.

Take time to explain health conditions, cures, and/or treatments in a language that you understand.

Be accessible. A physician should be able to be reached personally or have some kind of stand-by for urgent situations.

Expect and allow you to ask questions.

Be non-judgmental about you and your life choices.

Respect your confidentiality.

Consider your emotional as well as your physical well-being.

Many of these responsibilities are also legal requirements. If you feel you have been abused or assaulted by a doctor, you can contact the police or the College des Médecins. If you feel a doctor has violated his/her responsibilities in a non-criminal manner, contact the College des Médecins.


Click to download a pdf version. General Health Matters: Gas and Gas pain

Gas and Gas Pain

Intestinal gas and gas pains are a normal part of digestion. It can be embarrassing when gas strikes at the worst possible moment but it usually isn't serious. Everyone passes gas and most people pass gas at least 12 or more times a day.

Signs and Symptoms

Abdominal distension (bloating) and pain
Flatulence (passing rectal gas)
Sharp, jabbing pains or cramps in the abdomen or a “knotted” feeling in your stomach

What causes belching?

Belching is caused by air that is swallowed and then has to be brought back up. You swallow air whenever you eat or drink, especially if you eat quickly. The amount of air that gets into your stomach is increased if you drink through a straw, drink carbonated beverages, chew gum, suck on hard candies, or unknowingly swallow air when you're nervous. The air that is swallowed mixes with your stomach contents and either enters your small intestine or ends up being belched back up. The air that enters your small intestine is either absorbed or continues to your large intestine and is passed rectally.

What causes flatulence?

Flatulence from gas in the large intestine is mostly produced by bacteria breaking down carbohydrates that aren't digested in your small intestine. Foods that are high in fiber such as cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, onions, beans, and bran tend to be incompletely digested. A diet high in fiber is important to maintain a healthy digestive system but excessive amounts will lead to gas. If you are increasing the amount of fiber in your diet, do so gradually so that your body can get used to it slowly.

You may also produce gas after eating dairy food if you are lactose intolerant. People with lactose intolerance do not produce enough of the enzyme lactase which is needed to break down milk sugars. Another food that some people find hard to digest is gluten which is a protein found in wheat and some other grains. Some people also have a hard time tolerating artificial sweeteners such as sorbitol and mannitol found in sugar-free foods, gums, and candies.

Intestinal gas can also be a result of a gastrointestinal infection such as the stomach flu or food poisoning.

Everybody experiences flatulence but the volume of gas is different everyday. The amount is a combination of mainly nitrogen from the air you swallow and the gases created from poorly absorbed food. The unpleasant odor is due to gases such as hydrogen sulfide and methane that are produced by the bacteria in your colon.

What can you do to prevent or treat excessive gas?

Chew food thoroughly, eat slowly so that you don't gulp your food, and avoid washing food down with a drink
Try to identify and limit the foods that affect you the most
Try an over-the-counter digestive aid like Beano when eating high fiber foods
If you are lactose intolerant, try using a product to digest lactose such as Lactaid or try switching to low-lactose dairy foods such as yogurt instead of milk. Having small amounts of milk product at a time or consuming them with other foods may make them easier to digest.
Avoid chewing gum and sucking on hard candy
Avoid drinking with straws or out of small mouthed bottles
Avoid drinking form water fountains
Avoid drinking carbonated beverages like soda and beer
Cut back on fried and fatty foods as fats delays the stomach from emptying and can increase the feeling of bloating
Don't overload your stomach at meals
Avoid foods with air whipped into them such as milk shakes
Be aware of and avoid deep sighing
Don't lie down or sit in a slumped position immediately after eating—instead, take a leisurely walk after meals
Herbs such as chamomile, peppermint, or sage may help
Develop a regular healthy diet and a routine of exercise and rest

When should you see a doctor?

You have severe, prolonged, recurring pain in your abdomen along with other symptoms such as weight loss, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, or heartburn
You have persistent, unexplained bloating for more than 3 days
Your gas or gas pains are so persistent or severe that they interfere with your ability to live a normal life


Click to download a pdf version. General Health Matters: Headaches


The physical causes of headaches are not well understood, but many headaches are believed to be related to contractions and dilations or spasms of arteries in the brain. Other causes may include tension or damage to the muscles of the neck, inflammation of the arteries or compression of nerves in the head.

These physical causes of headaches can be triggered by physical or environmental events including stress, improper nutrition, caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, some prescription drugs, irregular sleep patterns and improper posture or eye strain.

Preventing Headaches

The first thing to do is to figure out what is triggering your headaches. If you have difficulty doing this, you may want to start keeping a headache journal to include:
Date, time, intensity and duration of the headache
Location of the pain
Any recent activities or food eaten that may be connected to the headache
Any treatment used and its effectiveness

Once you identify what is triggering your headaches, try to eliminate the trigger. In addition, there are general measures that everyone can take to help prevent the onset of headaches:
Eat a well balanced diet that is low in fat and includes plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Get a good night's sleep.
Get regular exercise. Exercise stimulates circulation and helps reduce the vascular spasms that are linked to headaches. Exercise also promotes the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers.
Stop smoking and eliminate or reduce caffeine and alcohol consumption.
Stress management. Identify the causes of stress in your life and work towards eliminating them.

Treating Headaches

When a headache arises there are several things you can do to help relieve your suffering:

Relax. Many headaches are directly linked to stress. Find a quiet, comfortable place to lie down and close your eyes. Other relaxation techniques include deep breathing, visualization, meditation and massage. Apply an ice pack (frozen peas will do) or a cold compress (rinse a face cloth in cold water) to the area of pain.

Over-the-counter pain killers such as acetaminophen (Anacin, Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and ASA (aspirin) are sometimes sufficient to relieve the pain. However, they generally will only provide temporary relieve because they do not cure the causes of the headaches.

Prescription headache medications may be prescribed by your doctor to treat chronic or severe headaches. It is important to realize, though, that pain killers frequently have a rebound effect and start causing headaches.

Alternative therapies have become increasingly popular approaches to headache relief. Some of the techniques include acupressure, herbal remedies, aromatherapy and homeopathy.

When you should see a doctor.

Most headaches are not indications of a serious health condition or problem, however you should see your doctor if:

  • You experience a sudden, excruciating headache or the worst headache of your life.
  • Headaches are accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
  • Headaches are becoming increasingly worse or don't respond to treatment.
  • The headache is accompanied by a fever and a stiff, unbendable neck; these may by signs of meningitis.
  • You are experiencing difficulty walking or speaking, double vision, loss of balance, numbness or confusion.


Click to download a pdf version. General Health Matters: Keeping Warm

Keeping Warm

After the heat waves of summer, the fresh air of fall, here comes our winter! And with the wind chill it can get...cold. Our bodies need some help to keep warm, especially if it’s windy or if you’ll be outside for a long period of time. Some body parts are more vulnerable to the cold like your fingers, nose, toes and ears. So, try to remember that you really need to:

  • Wear a hat and/or earmuffs.
  • Wear warm socks and gloves.
  • Remove wet clothing quickly and exchange it for dry garments.
  • Don’t forget a real winter coat (jean jackets don’t count).

If you are going to spend the day outside, make to sure to eat well all day, and stay away from alcohol until you get back to a warm place.

What is Frostbite?

Literally, frostbite means that your tissues are frozen. This is usually your skin, but it can spread to your muscles and even your bones! The skin looks pale and feels cold, hard and sometimes numb.

What to do:
First, go back inside and remove any wet clothing.
NEVER rub the affected area.
When it’s not severe, place the affected area against a warm body part (your own or another person) or blow on the affected area with warm air.
DO NOT use direct heat such as a fire or a heating pad.
DO NOT re-expose the area to the cold. It’s sensitive and damaged and re-exposure could lead to permanent tissue damage.
If the area is still numb after warming, you should seek medical attention.

If you are going to travel to a cold place (i.e. Himalayan expedition), you should learn more about frostbite care in extreme circumstances. Contact a nurse at Health Services (398-6017) for further information or referrals.


Click to download a pdf version. General Health Matters: Mono


You wake up and find that you have the worst sore throat you’ve ever had. Your neck glands seem very swollen and a feverish headache is making you miserable. Your doctor tells you there is a good chance that you have infectious mononucleosis, or mono, as most people call it.

Infectious mononucleosis is caused by a virus that infects lymph cells in the blood, lymph glands, the liver and the spleen. It occurs most commonly among adolescents and young adults, aged 15-25; and early fall and spring are the periods of greatest frequency of the disease among university students.

The incubation period for mono is still unknown but some of the most common symptoms include:

For a period of 1-2 weeks, you may experience fatigue, general malaise and lack of appetite.

Fever and sore throat.

Swollen glands, or enlarged lymph nodes in the neck may develop. In addition, you may develop an enlarged spleen (an organ which lies just below and under the left lower rib).

Infrequently, jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin) may occur.

The acute phase of mono lasts for 2-3 weeks in most cases, after which recovery usually occurs rapidly. However, it is not uncommon for some degree of lethargy to persist for 2-3 months after the acute symptoms have abated.

Transmission of Mono

The mono virus is present in saliva and is transmitted through intimate oral contact, such as kissing or sharing a straw; it is not airborne. However, contrary to popular belief, mono is not very contagious. You are no more likely to contract mono from your roommates than from the general population.

Treating Mono

Since infectious mononucleosis is a viral illness, there is no specific treatment, however it is possible to relieve some of the symptoms:

  • Bed rest is advisable when fever is present. You will get better on your own without the help of medication.
  • Aspirin or Tylenol is usually sufficient to control headaches and discomfort.
  • Gargling with salt water (1 teaspoon of salt to 1 pint of water) relieves symptoms of sore throat.
  • Avoid excessive physical exertion and contact sports during the first 3 weeks, especially if there is enlargement of the spleen.
  • Cortisone derivatives may be prescribed in cases where there is excessive sore throat and swelling of tonsils. However, they do not seem to help the fatigue that accompanies mono.
  • Antibiotics will be prescribed if you have a coincidental streptococcal infection of the throat (strep throat).
  • Avoid alcohol if there is evidence of liver involvement.

Blood donation should be avoided for about 6 months to avoid passing on the infection through your white blood cells.

If you think you have mono, come to Student Health Services or go to your family doctor to have a diagnosis made. Laboratory tests such as a “blood count”, a mono test, and sometimes a throat culture may be performed. However, the test may not show a positive result right away; therefore, if symptoms persists after 7-10 days, you should return to your doctor for further examination.