Hospital sheets can cause a rash


I was in the hospital for knee surgery and got a terrible rash on my back. The nurses said it was probably from chemicals used to launder the sheets. Is this true?

It could be. These rashes happen "with enough frequency that we do see it. They're often due to the high amounts of bleach and whitening agents in the detergent" used in hospital laundering, said Dr. John Williams, a dermatologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Commercial laundries use much harsher chemicals than people use at home, he said, and these agents can cause contact dermatitis, a rash that in most cases is simply a reaction to an irritating substance but 20 percent of the time is a genuine allergic reaction, in which immune cells gear up to fight the offending substance.

"Nurses are extremely sensitive to this issue," said Dr. Buddy Cohen, interim chairman of dermatology at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. In severe cases, they can put special blankets or other products between the patient and the bedsheet to protect sensitive areas.

But hospitalized patients can also get rashes for other reasons, including reactions to medications. Some people are also allergic to latex (an allergy that can be serious) and other materials used in some hospital mattresses.

Often, though, rashes occur simply because people are lying flat in bed, and sweat glands become blocked, said Dr. Barbara Gilchrest, chairman of dermatology at the Boston University School of Medicine. The solution is to stay as comfortably cool and dry as possible, change position in bed, and use baby powder or a product called Zeasorb that absorbs moisture.

Does meditation offer any health benefits?

Yes. The ancient Eastern practice of quieting the mind through a variety of techniques from simply focusing on one's breathing to silently repeating a word or mantra has been shown to have measurable, beneficial effects on the body.

In Western terms, the "relaxation response," a term coined years ago by Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, has been shown to lower blood pressure, heart rate and respiration; to reduce anxiety, anger, hostility and mild to moderate depression; to help alleviate insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, hot flashes and infertility; and to relieve some types of pain, most notably tension headaches.

Beyond that, it gets tricky. A new study published recently in the American Journal of Cardiology claims that meditation may actually prolong life, though the flaws in the study make any firm conclusion uncertain.

The study, conducted by Dr. Robert H. Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, pooled data on 202 mildly hypertensive people from two previous, randomized, controlled studies published in 1989 and 1995.

Those studies, said Schneider, showed that Transcendental Meditation, a form of meditation in which a person is given a "mantra" by a teacher and trained to use the technique to quiet the mind, lowered blood pressure after three to four months if done for 20 minutes twice a day.

In 200l, Schneider's team looked at death records from the National Center for Health Statistics for the participants in these earlier studies. On average, the follow-up period was 7.6 years. The researchers found the participants were more likely to be alive if they had practiced TM in the original studies.

But - and it is a huge "but" -- the sample was small and researchers had no way of knowing whether the meditators kept meditating after the initial studies.

The study "had its limitations," said Benson but it's in the direction that should be explored further."

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