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“Sticks and stones…”

“…but names will never hurt me” unless I’m Chinese.

Why is there such a furor over applying the name “Chinese virus” to the cause of the current pandemic? A few months ago it was common throughout all parts of the media but now the term is being vilified as racist. Why?

For the record, I couldn’t care less about the derivation of the names of diseases or the agents that cause them. Early in the 16th century syphilis was named The French Disease, The Italian Disease, The Polish Disease and The German Disease in a schoolboyish tit for tat that military folk have engaged in for millennia.

The media seem to have no problem in referring to the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 as the Spanish Flu. Isn’t that just as racist? It didn’t originate on the Iberian Peninsula, of course but Spain had made the decision to remain neutral during The Great War. They reported the numbers of victims as accurately as the system of the day allowed but the combatants did not. The Allies and the Germany-Austria-Hungary Alliance, not wanting to hurt morale, were not forthcoming regarding their flu-related losses. By comparison, Spain’s figures were awful, hence the name Spanish Flu.

Just off the top of my head I can name quite a few diseases that were named for their place of origin or prevalence but in more than a half-century as an infectious diseases specialist I can’t remember any anger on the part of the inhabitants of those locales.

German measles, Japanese encephalitis, Mediterranean fever, Crimean fever, Malta fever, Rocky Mountain Spotted fever, Asian flu, Hong Kong flu, Zika virus, Lassa fever, West Nile virus, Ebola virus, MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) – more than a dozen apparently inoffensive place names that I can recall without referring to a medical textbook. I’m not even offended by Lyme disease, named after a small town in my native Connecticut!

Speaking of medical textbooks, here’s what I found in just a few pages of the index of my Principles of Internal Medicine, which is gathering dust since I can retrieve more up-to-date information with a few keystrokes: California encephalitis (WOW!), Rift Valley fever, African tick-bite fever, African sleeping sickness, Aleppo evil, Baghdad boil, American trypanosomiasis, St. Louis encephalitis and Russian spring-summer encephalitis. There are dozens more, of course, named after places whose inhabitants probably have never thought about complaining about the racist attitudes of the scientists who named these scourges.

Like it or not, the terms Chines coronavirus and the more exotic-sounding Wuhan virus will linger for decades. That won’t keep me from dining in Chinese restaurants or from buying products made in China (as if I had a choice).


Annoyance number 14: ear wax

“Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.” I have no idea when I first heard that, maybe when I was about seven years old. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I was never going to put my elbow in there but I didn’t think about it much again until I got to medical school and learned how to use an otoscope. A few ears later I learned about the nature of cerumen, a much more sophisticated term than ear wax. Some people have almost none; some have moderate to large amounts of the really gunky stuff and some – mostly Asians – have lots of dry, hard wax that is really hard to remove.

The elbow rule is one that everyone should follow. In particular, a cotton swab does yield a little wax when you twirl it in the ear canal but it can push some farther in at the same time. Having seen a grown-up or two with bloody, broken ear drums from the overenthusiastic application of a Q-Tip I feel strongly that ear canals should be left alone. Water and ear wax almost always dry up or fall out, respectively.

How can you tell if you have an accumulation of ear wax? This is not a DIY project. Be sure to have your physician take a look during your next annual check-up. If you haven’t had a screening hearing test and you are over the age of 50 the audiologist can do it.

Can an accumulation of ear was cause hearing problems? Yes, but there’s a simple way of removing it without the risk of trauma and that I used with universal success when treating children: hydrogen peroxide. If you feel that you are accumulating an excess of wax, simply put two or three drops of plain out-of-the-bottle peroxide in each ear after your daily shower. Once or twice a week should be enough. As long as you have not damaged the ear canal with a bobby pin or similar instrument, the peroxide will not cause pain.

During my pediatric practice years I often had to remove wax from a child’s ears to rule out an ear infection. I used a metal loop called a curette. Believe me, I would have much preferred to use a cotton swab because sometimes removing a piece of wax took a fragment of skin that it had adhered to, resulting in bleeding. That frustrated me and terrified the mother.

When the curette didn’t work we used irrigation with a Water Pik, similar to the gadget that you see these days in TV ads. Yes, it works; no, you don’t need it. We did in in my practice because I had to see those eardrums right away. Peroxide is cheaper and just takes a few days even if you have lots of wax.

OTC (Over-The-Counter) solutions work too but they are unnecessary. Never use mineral or olive oil, which can lead to infection and seldom work.

At the risk of offending my medical colleagues who are still in practice – not very many of those left – it’s not necessary to make periodic visits to the doctor’s office to have ear wax removed. A little hydrogen peroxide will do the job. And if your hearing is normal, (see the May 1st blog) don’t bother.

If you’re high-tech, consider the Q-Grip, a corkscrew device that retails for $12.99 to $39.99 but before you buy, you might want to check the customer reviews.


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