Health: A Question of Health

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IS THERE any way to prevent the formation of ear wax? If not, is there any alternative to ear-syringeing, which I find quite unpleasant and my doctor is reluctant to perform?

Ear wax is secreted to protect the delicate skin that lines the canal leading to the ear drum. For a variety of reasons, some people accumulate wax, which blocks up the canal and causes hearing problems. People with very hairy ear canals seem to accumulate more wax, probably because the wax sticks to the hairs. Narrow ear canals are another reason why wax fails to drain out. Cotton buds tend to push wax deep into the ear. Ear drops will soften wax and help it to seep out. Try sodium bicarbonate drops once or twice a week, or you can use olive oil or other proprietary drops from chemists. Syringeing should be considered only as a last resort, if drops fail.

HOW EFFECTIVE is the morning-after pill? Is there any reason why it should not be used as a regular method of contraception by someone who has sex only intermittently?

The morning-after pill - which is more correctly known as emergency contraception, because it can be taken up to three days after unprotected sex - has a failure rate of about 2 per cent. This makes it one of the less reliable methods of contraception.

In theory, it could be used as a regular method of contraception, but if you used it, say, six times in a year, the total risk of pregnancy would be around 12 per cent. Most women would consider that to be an unacceptable rate of failure.

It is important to remember that emergency contraception will not offer protection against sexually transmitted diseases. You should also bear in mind that nausea and vomiting are common side effects. If you vomit within an hour of taking the pill, it probably won't work.

There is a 72-hour time limit for emergency contraception but the earlier you take it, the better.

A new pill that contains only progesterone and not oestrogen is more effective, and has fewer side effects, but it is not yet licensed.

THERE IS an outbreak of hand, foot and mouth disease at my children's school. I thought this affected only cattle.

Hand, foot and mouth disease is common in small children. It is caused by a coxsackie virus and the rash that appears is slightly blistery, on the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, and in and around the mouth. It is unrelated to the disease that affects cattle and other animals - foot and mouth disease.

Send your questions to A Question of Health, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182; or e-mail them to: Dr Kavalier is unable to respond personally