Irritating naval passages

Irritating naval passages (Halfdark via Getty Images creative / July 20, 2012)

Q: For years, I had woken up in the middle of the night unable to breathe through my nose. This disrupted a good night's sleep, as I would have to get up and sit for 20 to 30 minutes waiting for my sinuses to drain. I blamed it on lack of humidity, since it never happened while I was vacationing at the beach twice a year.

I recently read that home air fresheners contain formaldehyde and petroleum distillates, aerosol propellants and p-Dichlorobenzene (PDB) that can irritate nasal passages. I immediately unplugged all my air fresheners, and after one day I was amazed with the results.

I have now slept straight through the night for about two solid weeks. Who would imagine that plug-ins could cause such sinus misery?

A: Air fresheners contain a variety of chemicals that may irritate the respiratory tract. PDB, found in mothballs as well as air fresheners, could result in reduced pulmonary function (Environmental Health Perspectives, August 2006).

Other compounds found in air fresheners include phthalates. These are often used to carry fragrance in consumer products. Phthalates also are used to make plastic products pliable. These chemicals are controversial because they are hormone disrupters and potential carcinogens.

Q: I have had thinning hair since I started on blood pressure meds. I had to switch to a short haircut. Since then, I have been put on atenolol, Norvasc, Diovan and enalapril. I suspect the beta blocker is responsible for the fact that you can see more scalp than hair.

Even with the shortest, punkiest cut, you see scalp, and it is embarrassing. I now own a myriad of wigs, but I can't seem to get used to them.

When women lose hair due to chemo, it is met with sympathy. Saying it's my blood pressure pills doesn't provoke the same reaction. I am now 62, so this has been going on for years, but it has become much worse since I started atenolol.

A: Hair loss is frequently an underappreciated side effect of medications. Prescribers may not mention this complication.

You are right that atenolol, like other beta blockers, can cause hair loss. Diovan, amlodipine (Norvasc) and enalapril are somewhat less likely to trigger this reaction. Finding the best blood pressure treatment that doesn't cause hair loss will require some sleuthing by your doctor.

Q: My vitamin D level is low, and my doctor said I should spend more time in the sun. He didn't provide details, and I don't like to sit outside in direct sunlight. Is indirect sunlight (under an umbrella) just as good?

A: Most dermatologists would shudder at your doctor's recommendation. They worry because excessive sun exposure increases the risk of skin cancer.

Indirect exposure, however, will not allow your skin to make vitamin D. It doesn't take long to get enough vitamin D from sunlight. In the summer, 10 to 15 minutes two or three times a week often does the trick.

In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Send questions to them via peoplespharmacy.com.