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    Plasma Flashlights and Insect Bites

    Going through medical journals this week, two recent studies caught my eye. One was about a novel way of getting rid of bacteria on the skin; the other confirmed what I’ve long thought about insect bite remedies.

    Hand sanitizer gels and wipes seem to be everywhere, but scientists are increasingly concerned that their overuse might lead to resistant bacteria. The best way to get rid of germs on your skin is by using good old soap and water and rubbing your hands long enough under the flow of water to scrub the bacteria off. But not everybody takes the time to wash their hands, leading to a perpetual health care problem.

    Now researchers in Australia and China have come up with a new concept: the plasma flashlight, which emits a plasma jet that kills all skin bacteria in an instant. It can be transported anywhere and can be used at any temperature. It’s not commercially available yet, and I have my doubts about how practical a home version would be. After all, who would want to trust a six-year-old with a plasma zapper?

    But in other settings, this could be a real breakthrough. Hospital infections are carried from patient to patient via hand contact, because most people, even doctors and nurses, don’t wash their hands often enough. But a one-second zap with the plasma flashlight before touching patients might be enough to significantly lower hospital mortality rates. Wouldn’t it be great if doctors could carry a plasma flashlight in the pocket of their white coats?

    The second study, done in the U.K., concluded that most remedies for the usual insect bites of summer — midges, gnats, mosquitoes, and fleas — do not work. That includes most of the insect remedies sold in drugstores, from cortisone creams to antihistamine pills. The itch and redness associated with minor insect bites are usually self-limiting, and will go away on their own even if you do nothing. The one thing that researchers found that actually did work to relieve the discomfort from minor insect bites was cold-water compresses. I would add, from personal experience, that ice cubes are also effective.

    Of course, allergic reactions to insect bites are another matter, requiring antihistamines and, in extreme cases, the immediate use of epinephrine injections and trips to the emergency room. But this summer, if you or your child get bitten, reach for cold water or an ice cube, not creams or pills.


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