Spring is in the air, and we all want to be outside after long days of being shut in against the cold. For some, that means spending time hiking and taking trips into the woods. For others, it’s planting and redoing lawns and gardens. For those folks, I say: Beware. Stumbling across the wrong plant could lead to a trip to the pharmacy.

Yes, I’m referring to poison oak and poison ivy. Some backyards, like mine, are full of this stuff. It can grow anywhere, like on fences, around sheds and between your foliage. When skin comes into contact with the urushiol oil from poison ivy, oak or sumac, it causes a troublesome red, itchy rash marked by fluid-filled blisters or hives. Constant scratching only worsens the problem and spreads the rash to other areas. Indirect contact with urushiol through pet fur, sporting gear, gardening tools or other objects can also cause the rash. The rash can be treated with topical over-the-counter products, including lotions, gels, sprays and bath products.

So use caution and remember the old saying, “Leaves of three, let it be!”

Q: My doctor has put me on antibiotics to fight off an infection. I’ve heard that antibiotics reduce the effectiveness of birth control pills, and I really don’t want to get pregnant. Any advice?

A:   For decades, women have been warned to use backup contraception when taking oral contraceptives and antibiotics together. This all started back in the1970s when a few women on oral contraceptives took rifampin and then got pregnant.  Researchers later discovered that rifampin and griseofulvin actually increase the metabolism of oral contraceptives, making them less effective. But the same is not true for other oral contraceptives, such as tetracycline, doxycycline, ampicillin, quinolones and metronidazole. In fact, oral contraceptive levels are actually increased by some antibiotics, such as erythromycin, clarithromycin and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole.?
Still, most package inserts warn that another form of contraception is needed when starting antibiotics.   A small number of women might be predisposed to a higher failure rate due to genetic metabolic variations…but it’s difficult to determine who these women are. So, I suggest you use a backup contraception while you are on antibiotics and for seven days afterwards, just to be on the safe side.

Q: My aunt says she doesn’t want to get vaccinated against the flu because her friend told her the vaccine contains aluminum and mercury, and those chemicals can cause Alzheimer’s disease.

A:  Who keeps coming up with these weird excuses for not getting their vaccinations? First, the flu vaccine does not contain aluminum. It does contain a tiny amount of mercury called thimerosal, which is also used in eye drops and contact lens solution.Thimerosal has a long record of safe and effective use preventing bacterial and fungal contamination of vaccines.

One flu shot contains 25 micrograms of mercury, an amount so small that if you combined all the flu shots in your lifetime into one dose, it would be well below acceptable limits. In fact, there is much more mercury in one can of tuna than in one flu shot. But if your aunt insists, tell her that preservative-free influenza vaccines containing 1 microgram or less of mercury are available.

Q: My girlfriend swears by Airborne for colds. She says it can prevent them, or at the least, make them shorter. I tried it. I’m not convinced. I think it’s bogus.

A:  Airborne is a dietary supplement that contains several vitamins, minerals and other ingredients, none of which have been proven to prevent colds or flu or to shorten their duration. In fact, the manufacturer has been fined by the Federal Trade Commission because of deceptive advertising and the product has been the subject of successful class action lawsuits. In one class action lawsuit, a senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in Public Interest had this to say: “Airborne is basically an overpriced, run-of-the-mill vitamin pill that’s been cleverly, but deceptively, marketed.” By the way, Airborne agreed to pay $23.3 million to settle the lawsuit. That should tell you all you need to know.

Q: My friend says ibuprofen can cause blindness in children. So, I’m concerned about giving it to my two small children.

A: I understand your concern, but let’s get the facts straight. This stems from sensational news releases of a little girl becoming blind after taking Children’s Motrin. Then there were other reports that a couple of other children died after using Children’s Advil. It turns out that these children developed Stevens Johnson Syndrome an inflammatory disorder of the skin and mucous membranes that is very rare. It is estimated there are only 600-2000 cases annually in the United States. While Stevens Johnson Syndrome is usually drug-induced, it most often happens after taking antibiotics, especially sulfonamides, NSAIDs and many anticonvulsants. ?
The likelihood of your child developing SJS with ibuprofen or any other drug is slim. If you are already using the drug, it’s certainly not necessary to stop.

Do you have questions about your medication, concerns about a friends or relative’s prescription or just want to keep up with the latest developments. In that case, ask syndicated columnist Dr. Daphne Bernard, a doctor of pharmacy and a registered pharmacist in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. She is assistant dean and associate professor at the Howard University School of Pharmacy and a member of numerous boards and associations, including the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, the District of Columbia Board of Pharmacy, the Nonprescription Medicines Academy, Rho Chi Honor Society, American Pharmacists Association and the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, Please email her at