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10/Aug/2022

Creams, sprays, liniments, ointments, patches, rubs & gels

If you open most medicine cabinets or bathroom cupboards, you’ll more than likely find a tube or jar of a pain-relieving rub. With varying degrees of smelliness!!😱

Many of us turn to these products when we wake up with a stiff neck or overdo it in the garden. The soothing ointments, creams, sprays, liniments, patches, rubs and gels that we apply directly to our skin (topically).

But what are they? How do they work? Are they effective? And are they safe?

First, there’s a vast array of topical products available in many forms and using different ingredients. Many are available to buy over-the-counter from your chemist or supermarket. However, some require a prescription.

Let’s look at some of the more common varieties.

Counterirritants

These products use ingredients such as menthol, methyl salicylate, eucalyptus oil and camphor. They’re called counterirritants because they create a burning, cooling or ‘tingling’ sensation in the area where they’re applied that distracts you from your pain.

Medicated products

Many topical products contain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (or NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, diclofenac or piroxicam. NSAIDs block the action of specific enzymes (cyclooxygenase or COX) that are involved in inflammation.

Topical NSAIDs may be an option for you if you can’t take oral NSAIDs due to other health issues (e.g. high blood pressure) or the risk of complications (e.g. stomach problems), as less medication is absorbed into the bloodstream.

If you’re using a topical NSAID, you should avoid taking NSAIDs orally (pills or tablets) unless you’ve discussed this with your doctor. Although the amount of medicine that enters your body through the skin is less than when taking them orally, there’s still the risk of getting too much when using both forms.

Corticosteroids, or steroids, simulate the naturally occurring hormone cortisol. One of the many functions of cortisol is to suppress or reduce inflammation. Steroid creams come in varying strengths. They rarely have serious side effects if used correctly, so it’s essential that you follow the instructions carefully. If you have any concerns, discuss these with your doctor or pharmacist.

Capsaicin

Capsaicin is the substance found in chilli peppers that gives them their heat and spicy kick, making your mouth tingle and burn. Applied to the skin as a cream, it works by interfering with the pain signals between your nerve endings and brain.

Benefits of using topicals

Most topicals, when used correctly, provide quick, temporary pain relief and have fewer potential side effects than oral pain-relieving medicines.

They may be a good option if you only have pain in a few joints or muscles, as they work in the immediate area you apply it to, rather than affecting your whole body.

Topicals also provide the soothing benefit of a mini-massage when you apply them to your skin. Seriously, how good does it feel when you rub the cream into your sore neck, and you feel the muscles loosening? Or when you apply a warm gel to your stiff, aching knee? Bliss. 😊

Another benefit of topicals is that they’re very portable; you can have some at home, in your drawer at work, in your handbag or gym locker, and use them as needed.

Do they work?

Many people swear by these products for quick pain relief. And there’s solid evidence that they can provide pain relief for acute pain, such as strains and sprains. However, research shows only modest benefits for chronic pain. But, if you feel better when using these products, and you’ve discussed it with your doctor, they’re safe to use and are better tolerated than oral medicines.

Potential side effects

Topicals, both medicated and non-medicated varieties, can cause side effects. They include skin irritation, redness, rash, or a burning, stinging or itchy sensation in the area it’s been applied.

Very rarely, some people may experience nausea, breathlessness, indigestion or an allergic reaction to the topical. If you experience any of these symptoms, stop using the topical and talk with your doctor or pharmacist for advice.

Cautions

As with any medication, there are things you need to be aware of to prevent any problems from occurring:

  • Taking oral and topical medicines containing the same ingredients (e.g. NSAIDs) at the same time may increase the risk of side effects. Talk with your doctor about this risk.
  • Always read the consumer medicine information carefully and follow the instructions. Take note of how to apply the topical, how often and how much. Don’t go overboard and slather it on. You can get too much of a good thing!!
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after applying.
  • Be careful to avoid contact with your eyes or other sensitive areas 😖.
  • Don’t use these products on wounds or damaged skin.
  • Don’t use with heat packs as this may cause burns.
  • Only use one topical medicine at a time.
  • Check the use-by-date and discard any out-of-date products.

Contact our free national Help Line

Call our nurses if you have questions about managing your painmusculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

More to explore


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21/Jul/2022

Self-care is a trendy concept at the moment with many different definitions and uses.

You often see social media posts promoting self-care with pictures of day spas, yoga retreats and people exercising on the beach at sunset. All wonderful things, but when you live with a chronic condition, pain and sometimes-crippling exhaustion, life’s not always that glamorous!

So what is self-care?

The World Health Organisation defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health worker”.(1)

That’s a pretty dry definition, so for the everyday person with a musculoskeletal condition, we describe self-care as the things you consciously and deliberately do to take care of your physical, mental and emotional health and wellbeing.

It includes everything from exercising regularly and staying active, eating a healthy diet, getting a good night’s sleep, caring for your mental healthmanaging pain and fatigue, seeing your healthcare team regularly, learning about your musculoskeletal condition, and staying connected with family and friends. It also involves good hygiene, avoiding risky behaviours and actions, and using medicines and treatments appropriately.

The International Self-Care Foundation (ISF) has developed seven pillars of self-care. They aim to help people understand the breadth and importance of self-care, and provide information about the steps you can take to care for yourself better.

Let’s explore them.

Pillar 1. Knowledge and health literacy

Knowledge, as the saying goes, is power – so understanding your body, how it works, how it’s affected by your musculoskeletal condition/s, as well as any other health conditions you have – gives you the ability to make informed decisions about your healthcare.

Health literacy refers to how we “understand information about health and health care, and how we apply that information to our lives, use it to make decisions and act on it”.(2)

Together, health literacy and knowledge give you the tools you need to actively manage your healthcare. By understanding your body and health, you can discuss your options with your health professionals, critically evaluate information from various sources, adjust your lifestyle and behaviours, understand risk factors, and the appropriate use of treatments and tests.

In fact, research shows that people who have high levels of knowledge and health literacy have much better health outcomes.

If you want to know more about your health and musculoskeletal condition/s, or you need help to improve your health literacy, there are many people who can help you.

Talk with your doctor and other members of your healthcare team. Contact the MSK Help Line and speak with our nurses. Visit authoritative websites (like ours).

And never be afraid to ask questions.

Pillar 2. Mental wellbeing, self-awareness and agency

Incorporating things you enjoy and that make you feel good into your daily/weekly routine – such as mindfulness, exercise, alone time, relaxation, massage, and staying connected with family and friends – is a simple thing you can do to look after your mental wellbeing and increase your resilience.

Self-awareness involves taking your health knowledge and applying it to your specific circumstances. For example, if you’re having problems sleeping, and you know exercise can help, you can ensure you’re getting enough exercise each day. Or if you’re carrying more weight than you’d like, and this is causing increased knee pain and self-esteem issues, talk with your doctor about safe ways you can lose weight. Or if you have rheumatoid arthritis and a family history of osteoporosis, talk with your doctor about how you can look after your bone health.

Agency is the ability and intention to act on your knowledge and self-awareness.

Pillar 3. Physical activity

OK, so this one’s fairly self-explanatory since we talk about the importance of exercise and being physically active all the time 😊.

Regular exercise helps us manage our musculoskeletal condition/s, pain, sleep, mood, weight, and joint health – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg! It keeps us moving, improves our posture and balance, helps us stay connected and helps prevent (or manage) other health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

Pillar 4. Healthy eating

This one’s also easy to understand, as along with exercise, healthy eating plays a vital role in our overall health and wellbeing.

Being overweight or obese increases the load on joints, causing increased pain and joint damage, especially on weight-bearing joints like hips, knees, ankles and feet. The amount of overall fat you carry can contribute to low but persistent levels of inflammation across your entire body, including the joints affected by your musculoskeletal condition, increasing the inflammation in these already painful, inflamed joints.

Being overweight or obese can also increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, some forms of cancer, poor sleep and depression.

Being underweight also causes health issues. It can affect your immune system (meaning you’re more at risk of getting sick or an infection), and you may feel more tired than usual. Feeling tired and run down will affect your ability to be active and do the things you want to do.

If you need help to eat more healthfully or manage your weight, talk with your doctor or dietitian.

Pillar 5. Risk avoidance or mitigation

This pillar has the sexiest and most user-friendly title 😜😝.

Simply put, this pillar is about taking responsibility for your actions and behaviours. In particular, those that increase your risk of injury, ill-health or death.

To avoid these risks, you can drink alcohol in moderation, drive carefully, wear a seatbelt, get vaccinated, protect yourself from the sun, quit smoking, wear a helmet when riding a bike, and practise safe sex.

Seeing your doctor and healthcare team regularly is also important to stay on top of any changes to your health.

Pillar 6. Good hygiene

You’re probably wondering what this has to do with self-care for people with musculoskeletal conditions living in Australia. After all, most Australians have access to clean water and clean living/working spaces.

However, the last few years have shown how vital good hygiene is for protecting all of us from bugs and germs. It’s even more important if your condition or meds have weakened your immune system.

Practising good hygiene is a simple thing you can do to reduce the risk of getting sick or developing infections. So continue to regularly wash your hands, cough/sneeze into your elbow, stay home when sick, and keep your home/work environment clean. And although they’re not yet mandated in most places, wearing a mask is recommended and a really good idea when you’re indoors and can’t physically distance yourself from others.

All of these things will help maintain good health and avoid catching (or spreading) any nasties.

Pillar 7. Rational and responsible use of products, services, diagnostics and medicines

Another fun one! 😁 Although the title doesn’t roll off the tongue, this is an important pillar.

ISF calls these self-care products and services the ‘tools’ of self‐care, as they support health awareness and healthy practices.

They include medicines (both prescription and over-the-counter), aids and equipment (e.g. TENS machine, heat or cold pack, walking stick), health services (e.g. physiotherapy, massage therapy), wellness services (e.g. exercise classes, weight loss groups), and complementary therapies.

ISF also says that the use of these tools should be ‘rational and responsible’. That means only using safe and effective products and services.

“An empty lantern provides no light. Self-care is the fuel that allows your light to shine brightly.” – Unknown

Contact our free national Help Line

Call our nurses if you have questions about managing your painmusculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

More to explore

References

(1) Self-care interventions for health, World Health Organization.
(2) Health literacy, Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care


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21/Jul/2022

Looking for ways to put more ‘care’ into your self-care game? We’ve got 21 tips to help you!

1. There’s no perfect or right way to practise self-care

The first tip, and I can’t stress this enough, is there’s no perfect or right way to practise self-care. Sure, we can talk about the International Self-Care Foundation’s seven pillars, and we can push exercise, healthy eating and hand washing until the cows come home 🐄 🐄 🐄. But, if those things don’t resonate with you, or you have other pressing issues vying for your attention (e.g. dealing with a case of painsomnia), you’re not going to care about our messaging on those topics. Or, at least not at the moment.

2. Choose your own adventure

This leads us to tip number two. Self-care is like a ‘choose your own adventure’ story. It’s unique to you, your life, your specific set of circumstances and your choices.

3. Create your toolbox

Knowing the basic elements or tools of self-care (see the seven pillars) means you can choose what you need to help you manage at specific times. It’s like having a trusty toolbox filled to the brim with info about exercise, smoking cessation, healthy recipes, pain management strategies, guided imagery scripts and massage oil. You can pick and choose what you want or need. The key is knowing what’s available and how they can help you.

So far, we’ve been talking broadly about self-care. Now let’s look at some more specific tips our consumers and staff recommend.

4. Drink water

It lubricates and cushions your joints, aids digestion, prevents constipation, keeps your temperature normal and helps maintain your blood pressure. The amount of water you need varies from person to person and from day to day. There’s no ‘one size fits all’, but “as a general rule, men need about 10 cups of fluids every day and women need about 8 cups (add another cup a day if you are pregnant or breastfeeding)”. (1)

5. Plan your menu

You can take a lot of the stress out of your day if you sit and plan your week’s meals and snacks. Check what ingredients you have in your pantry, fridge and freezer, work out what you need to buy, and write it all down. Then all you hopefully need is one trip to the shops, and you’re sorted! No more – ‘what’s for dinner’ angst. 😐 Eatforhealth.gov.au has some info on meal planning and sample plans for men, women and children.

6. Get excited about exercise

Mix up your exercise routine with something fun and enjoyable to get you out of your exercise rut. Try Zumba, cardio, low-impact exercises, tennis, dancing, skipping, cycling, or trampolining. Head to your local fitness centre or gym, try an online class or download an app like Get Active Victoria. There’s something for everyone!

7. Just breathe

Our breathing can become shallow when we feel stressed, anxious, upset or in pain. This, in turn, can elevate blood pressure and increase the heart rate. It can also cause more tension. When you notice this happening, take some time to decompress. Relax your body. Focus on your breathing. Slowly take a deep breath in. Fill your lungs to a capacity that’s comfortable for you. Then slowly release this breath. Don’t release it in a sudden exhale, but control it, so it’s slow and smooth. Continue this deep breathing, and you’ll feel your muscles relax, and your mind calm.

8. Write it down

Write about the things that make you happy and grateful. Write about the things that went well in your day.

And write about the bad things. Not so you’ll continue to obsess about them, but so you can process your feelings and actions. This reflection allows you to devise strategies to prevent the bad thing from happening again, or ways to handle it differently in the future.

9. Fill your home with plants

Bring the outdoors in and enjoy the health benefits. Having plants in your indoor spaces can help relieve stress, improve mood, lower blood pressure and improve air quality. Just be sure to check that they’re not toxic for you, your family or your furry housemates. 🌼

10. Have a regular date night

Whether with your significant other or a bestie, having a regular date night scheduled gives you something to look forward to. It also means there’s less chance that other commitments get in the way of you spending dedicated time with that person, which is essential for nurturing your relationship. 🧡💚💛

11. Say no

We all want to please others, so saying no can be challenging. But you need to weigh up everything you have going on and decide whether you can take on something else. If you can’t, then say no. And don’t feel you have to apologise for doing so.

12. Discover new places

Embrace your inner adventurer and explore new places. Far or near – it doesn’t matter. The point is to get out in the world and experience new sights, sounds, smells and tastes. Immerse yourself in new experiences.

13. Listen to music

Music is a powerful force we often don’t think about – or at least not too deeply. It’s always there, often in the background. But music can improve your mood, help you focus, get motivated and even ease your pain. Find out more about the power of music.

14. Pat your pets

Spending time with your pets is a wonderful tonic. It can decrease blood pressure, reduce feelings of loneliness, reduce stress, improve your mood and increase opportunities for exercise and outdoor activities. And they’re so much fun! 🐶😺

15. Get tidy and organised

Nothing can make you frazzled faster than not being able to find that ‘thing’ you’re looking for. So taking time to put things away in their place after you’ve used them, or reorganising your cupboard/pantry/child’s room, so that things are orderly and easy to find can bring a lot of calm to your life. The level of order you want to achieve is up to you. Although there are MANY social posts about the perfectly organised home, don’t fall down that rabbit hole. All you need to achieve is a space that makes you feel good and suits your lifestyle.

16. Eat mindfully

How often have you eaten dinner but can’t remember what it tasted like because you were watching TV? Or wondered how on earth you ate a whole packet of potato chips while scrolling through Insta? If this sounds familiar, try some mindfulness. You may have tried mindfulness meditation, but you can also be mindful when you do other activities, like eating. It simply means that you focus on the moment and the activity without being distracted. So when you’re eating, really take time to focus on the textures, smells and flavours and how the food makes you feel.

17. Get your meds sorted

Medicines are an important part of our self-care, but it’s easy to miss doses, get them mixed up with others meds or take them at the wrong time. So have a chat with your pharmacist. Ask questions about your medicines and supplements, so you’re fully informed about each one.

Many pharmacies have apps you can download that alert you when you need a new script, or you can download the MedicineWise app from NPS. If you take lots of medicines, or you find it hard to keep track of whether you’ve taken them or not, consider using a pill dispenser. You can buy one and fill it yourself, or your pharmacist can do this for you.

18. Listen to your body

Living with a chronic condition means that you need to be self-aware of how you’re feeling. If you’re exhausted, rest. If your back’s stiff, move. If you’re feeling sluggish, get some fresh air. If you’re feeling full, stop eating. Whatever your body is telling you, listen and take action.

19. Treat yourself

Many self-care posts we see on socials are very much of the ‘treat yo’ self’ variety. Going to a day spa, enjoying decadent foods, doing some online shopping, getting a pedicure, binging a favourite TV series, or travelling to exotic places. And why not? Why not indulge in pleasurable things that make you happy every now and again? As long as you’re not overindulging, overspending or overeating. Find the right balance and treat yourself. 😍

20. Stand up

We spend so much of our time sitting. In the car, on the couch, at the office, in waiting rooms. But we know that too much sitting can be bad for our health. It increases the risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. It also makes us feel tired, and our muscles and joints become stiff and sore from inactivity. So stand up and move regularly. Set alerts on your phone to remind you. Or download the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute Rise & Recharge app, which helps reduce sitting time and encourages regular movement.

21. Play

We loved to play when we were kids. Chasing each other, making up games, not overthinking things and just having fun. But as adults, we become too busy for play. Or we feel silly or self-conscious about how we might appear when we play. But playing is fun! It helps us forget about our work and commitments. It lets us be in the moment and let our inhibitions go. Play relieves stress and allows us to be creative and imaginative. So rediscover playing – with your kids, pets, partner, and friends. Let your inner child loose, play and have fun! Rediscover chasey (the dogs love that one), play hide and seek, build a blanket fort in your lounge, throw a Frisbee, play charades, the floor is lava, or a video game tournament. There are no rules – just have fun!

Contact our free national Help Line

Call our nurses if you have questions about managing your painmusculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

More to explore

Reference

(1) Drinking water and your health, Healthdirect


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24/Mar/2022

We have a long and complex relationship with opioids. Humans have been actively growing poppies and enjoying their medicinal benefits since at least 3,400 B.C. The Sumerians referred to it as Hul Gil or the ‘joy plant’.

However, we now know that while these medicines can provide significant pain relief when used appropriately, they can also cause great harm.

Did you know that every day in Australia, nearly 150 people are hospitalised, and 3 people die due to issues related to opioid use? (1)

That’s why in 2020, the Australian Government made changes to how we use and access opioids.

What are opioids?

Opioids are pain-relieving medicines that come in various formulations, dosages and strengths. They include tramadol, codeine, morphine, oxycodone and fentanyl.

There are two groups of opioids:

  • opiates – created using the milky substance found inside the pods of the opium poppy, and
  • synthetic or man-made opiods – created in a laboratory using chemicals.

Opioids can be taken as tablets, injections or patches on the skin.

How do they work?

Opioids attach to opioid receptors in the nervous system and slow down the messages between the body and brain, including pain messages. This dulls your perception of pain – it’s not gone, nor is the cause of the pain. It’s simply been dampened so that you can function with less discomfort. They also cause the brain to release the hormone dopamine, making you feel happy or relaxed.

However, opioids can also slow your heart rate and breathing.

Opioids are used to treat severe pain associated with cancer or acute pain, for example following surgery.

They’ve also been used for many years to help people with severe, persistent non-cancer pain, like the pain associated with musculoskeletal conditions.

However, extensive research now shows that opioids don’t provide ‘clinically important improvement in pain or function compared with other treatments’ for most people with persistent pain or chronic pain.(2) This research, combined with our knowledge of the serious side effects of opioid medicines, particularly with long-term use, mean that these medicines should be used with caution.

Side effects

All medicines have side effects, so it’s important to know what they are. Side effects of opioids include sleepiness, constipation and nausea. More serious side effects include shallow breathing, slowed heart rate and loss of consciousness. These serious side effects may be due to too many opioid medicines being taken (an overdose). This can be life-threatening, so you need to ensure that you know when and how to take your medicines to prevent an accidental overdose.

Addiction is also a possible side effect of opioids.

Opioids, when taken long-term, can also make you feel more pain. This is called opioid-induced hyperalgesia. It happens because opioids make the brain and nerves more sensitive to pain.

Tolerance, dependence and withdrawal

Your body adapts to opioids when you use them long-term. This is called tolerance. To get the same pain relief, you need to increase the dosage. However, it’s not safe or sustainable to continue to increase the dosage of opioid medicines because of the serious risk of harm associated with their long-term, high-dosage use.

Dependence is when your body requires a specific dose of the medicine to avoid withdrawal symptoms when the dose is reduced or stopped. Symptoms of withdrawal can include: disturbed sleep, hot and cold flushes, sweating, feeling anxious or irritable, cravings for opioids, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, lack of appetite and tremors.(3) You’re more likely to experience withdrawal symptoms if you’ve been taking opioids for a long time and/or taking high doses.

Your doctor will slowly reduce your dosage to lessen your risk of withdrawal symptoms. This is called tapering.

Using opioids safely

Because of the risks associated with their use, opioids aren’t a first-line treatment for managing pain associated with musculoskeletal conditions. Instead, your doctor may suggest strategies such as exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), heat and cold packs, distraction, and short-term use of medicines such as paracetamol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

If you are prescribed opioids, it’s important that you:

  • take them as prescribed
  • don’t drink alcohol while you’re taking them
  • don’t change the dosage or stop taking them without discussing this with your doctor – you may need to reduce your dosage gradually
  • talk with your doctor about other medicines or supplements you’re taking – some may not be able to be used at the same time you’re taking opioids
  • let your doctor know about any side effects you experience
  • discuss other options you can use to help manage your pain with your doctor – for example, gentle exercise, CBT, heat and cold.

While using opioid medicines, you should also monitor whether or not they’re working for you. If you’re still experiencing severe pain that’s affecting your quality of life and ability to do daily activities, discuss this with your doctor. Together you can look at alternative treatment options.

Finally – it’s important to understand that opioids reduce our perception of pain. They don’t ‘kill it’, because there’s no such thing as a ‘pain killer’. Medicines and other strategies such as heat and cold, exercise, distraction and CBT can help you reduce pain to levels that enable you to live a healthy and happy life.

Contact our free national Help Line

If you have questions about managing your pain, musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, mental health issues, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services, call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

More to explore

References

  1. Prescription opioids: What changes are being made and why
    Therapeutic Goods Administration 
  2. Prescription opioids: Information for consumers, patients and carers
    Therapeutic Goods Administration 
  3. Opioid withdrawal symptoms
    Healthdirect

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18/Feb/2021

Active ingredient prescribing is here!!

As of the first of February this year, you’ll need to be prepared to know (or at least recognise) the active ingredients in your medicines.

Doctors are now required to prescribe your medicine by its active ingredient/s. This will be what’s displayed on the packaging, rather than the brand name. So if you’re used to seeing Arava on your prescription and medicine, you’ll need to get used to seeing leflunomide instead. If you take Celebrex, you’ll need to become familiar with celecoxib – the active ingredient in Celebrex.

Your doctor can still add the brand name to your prescription, however it will follow the active ingredients.

What are active ingredients?

The active ingredients of medicines are the chemical compounds that have the intended medicinal effect on your body.

So if for example your doctor prescribes Nurofen Plus to relieve your pain and inflammation, the active ingredients are ibuprofen and codeine phosphate hemihydrate.

  • Ibuprofen – belongs to a group of medicines called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). NSAIDs provide temporary pain relief, specifically pain associated with inflammation.
  • Codeine phosphate hemihydrate – belongs to a group of medicines called analgesics which provide pain relief.

Your prescription will list these active ingredients, rather than the brand name Nurofen Plus (unless your doctor chooses to add it). It will also list the amount, or dose, of each active ingredient. For example: Ibuprofen 200mg and Codeine 12.8mg.

The active ingredients have always been listed on your medicines, however they were usually listed at the bottom of the packaging and were not very prominent. This is what’s currently changing.

Why has this happened?

Some of the reasons for this change are:

Safety #1 – many products contain the same active ingredient. If you only know the name brand, it’s very easy to take too much and accidentally overdose. A good example of an active ingredient that’s in lots of medicines is paracetamol. It’s in:

  • pain medicines – for joint pain, period pain, headache, back pain etc. Brand names include: Panadol, Panamax, Dymadon.
  • medicines for colds, flus and sinus problems. Brand names include: Codral, Lemsip.

These products may be purchased over-the-counter or be prescribed medicine. If you don’t realise they all contain paracetamol, you may use these medicines to deal with a headache, back pain and a cold, all in a short period of time. This is how accidental overdoses occur.

Safety #2 – if you see multiple doctors or specialists, knowing the active ingredients of the medicines prescribed by each of them means that together you can ensure you’re not being prescribed a medicine with the same active ingredient/s but with a different brand name.

Allergies – knowing the active ingredient in a medicine helps you spot something you may be allergic to before you take it.

Awareness – it’s important to understand and be fully informed about the medicines that you use.

Savings to you – knowing the active ingredient means you can discuss the potential use of generic medicines with your doctor or pharmacist. If it’s appropriate for you, using a generic medicine will save you money.

Savings to the health system – if more people use generic medicines, this will lead to savings for the health system, which will make the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme more sustainable.

What are generic medicines?

When a pharmaceutical company develops a brand new medicine, with a new active ingredient, it’s covered by a patent. This means they’re the only company that can make and sell this medicine. This allows the company to make back some of the money that went into the research and development associated with making new medicines.

However once the patent has expired, other pharmaceutical companies can make their own version of the original medicine. This is a generic medicine.

And because they haven’t had to put in the research and development to create the original medicine, they can usually sell it at a cheaper cost to consumers.

Learn more about generic medicines on the Healthdirect website.

Exceptions

Active ingredient prescribing will be required for all Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) and Repatriation PBS (RPBS) medicines except:

  • hand written prescriptions
  • medicines with four or more active ingredients
  • paper-based medicine charts in the residential aged care sector
  • medicines that have been excluded to protect patient safety or where it’s impractical to prescribe the medicine by active ingredient.

Help with keeping track of your medicines

It can be hard keeping track of medicines at the best of times, even when you know their brand name. Having to know the active ingredients may seem a bit daunting.

But there are resources to help you.

  • Visit the NPS MedicineWise website. They have a free app called MedicineWise that keeps track of all of your medicines. They also have paper templates you can print out to help you keep track if an app’s not style.
    Creating a medicines list (whether you use an app or a paper list) is a great opportunity to list all of your medicine information in one place. Include your prescription medicines, as well as any over-the-counter medicines and supplements you take. Include the active ingredients for all of them as well as the dosages.
  • Talk with your doctor and pharmacist about these changes if you have any concerns. Also ask them how to pronounce the active ingredients; many of them are tongue twisters, so ask for help if you have any difficulty saying them.
  • Contact our MSK Help Line. Call or email the nurses on our Help Line if you want more information about active ingredient prescribing, your medications or your condition. We’re here to help.

Finally – let’s limber up with some tongue twisters

Medicines can be complicated things. And we’ve been used to the relatively easy brand names. However the active ingredients of many of our medicines are doozies! So it’s time to limber up your tongue, gargle some water and repeat after me:

  • “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers before popping his prednisolone.
  • “She sells sea shells by the seashore. The shells she sells are seashells, and not secukinumab I’m sure.”
  • “Betty bought her bisphosphonate and a bit of butter. But the butter Betty bought was bitter but the bisphosphonate was beneficial”. ?

Contact our Help Line

If you have questions about things like managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

More to explore


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17/Dec/2020

…when it comes to complementary, alternative and ‘natural’ treatments

Many Australians use complementary or alternative treatments to manage their health condition (e.g. arthritis, anxiety) or to improve their overall health and wellbeing. But what are these treatments and what do you need to consider before trying them?

Complementary and alternative treatments include a wide range of therapies, medicines, products or practices that aren’t currently considered to be a conventional or mainstream medical treatment. They include acupuncture, meditation, massage, herbal treatments, yoga, aromatherapy and naturopathy.

The word complementary usually refers to treatments that are used alongside conventional medicine, whereas alternative usually means the treatment is used instead of conventional medicine.

To make things easier (and less wordy), we’ll use the term complementary treatment when referring to all types of complementary or alternative treatments in this article.

Why do we use complementary treatments?

People are attracted to these treatments because they often have a more holistic approach and treat the entire person, rather than just their condition or symptoms. They also appear to be more natural and safer than conventional medicine.

But it’s important to understand that as with any treatment, complementary treatments may cause harm and make you unwell if they’re not taken correctly, if they interact with one of your other medications, or if the practitioner you see isn’t properly trained or qualified. That’s why you should discuss your use, or intended use, or any complementary treatments with your doctor.

Do they work for musculoskeletal conditions?

While many people feel that using complementary treatments has been beneficial for their health and wellbeing, there isn’t as much evidence to support its use for musculoskeletal conditions as there is for conventional medicines.

For many complementary treatments there just aren’t enough well-designed randomised controlled trials to show whether or not these therapies are effective. And if they are effective, for which conditions or symptoms.

However some types of complementary treatments show promise and may be helpful for managing your condition. More and more research is now focusing on these treatments. But at the moment the evidence is still lacking so it’s best to take your time, do your research and make sure the treatment is right for you.

Tips for starting a new complementary treatment

Let your doctor know what you’re doing. Keep them informed about any things you’re taking or considering taking (e.g. supplements, homeopathic treatments, herbal medicines) as well as any other therapies you’re trying or considering trying (e.g. acupuncture, yoga).

Continue taking your medications as prescribed. Don’t stop taking any medications without first discussing it with your doctor. Some medications need to be gradually reduced, rather than simply stopped, to avoid side effects.

Think about what you want to get out of the treatment. Are you hoping to control symptoms like pain or fatigue? Sleep better? Reduce or stop taking certain medications? Manage your anxiety? When you have a clear goal from the beginning of your treatment, you can monitor your progress and see if there are any improvements. After starting a new treatment, write down any changes you notice for a month – remember to include any medication changes, changes in your exercise program, the amount of sleep you’re getting and anything else that could affect your symptoms. At the end of the month, you’ll have a clearer picture of whether or not the treatment is working. If it’s not, it may be time to look for an alternative.

Do your research and ask lots of questions. Some treatments may help you manage your condition or symptoms, while others will have no effect. Visit websites such as MedlinePlus and The Cochrane Library to learn more about the treatment. And talk with your doctor and the therapist. Find out if:

  • there’s any current evidence that the treatment is effective and safe for people with your condition?
  • the treatment’s been shown to be effective in repeated scientific studies with large numbers of people?
  • the research used a control group? A control group is a group of people who don’t have a particular treatment compared with a group of similar people who do. This helps to show that any results are due to the treatment and not some other factor.
  • potential risks, side effects and interactions with other treatments are clearly identified?
  • you can continue to use your current effective treatments, as well as the complementary treatment?
  • the treatment’s something you can afford and can access easily?

If you answered no to any of these questions, you should be wary of the treatment. Discuss it with your doctor or specialist before you go any further.

Check the qualifications of the person providing the treatment.

  • Do they receive regular training and updates?
  • Have they treated other people with your condition or health issues?
  • Are they a member of their peak body?
  • Are they accredited?

Buy Australian. Australian complementary medicines are subject to strict safety and quality regulations. This may not be the case in other countries. In Australia the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) ensures the safety of medicines and other therapeutic treatments.

Call Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424). As well as information on your prescription and over-the-counter medicines, they can also help you find out more about herbal medicine, vitamins and minerals.

After doing your research, if you have any doubts about the treatment, don’t use it.

Talk with your doctor or contact our MSK Help Line weekdays on 1800 263 265 helpline@msk.org.au for information about other treatment options.

Call our Help Line

If you have questions about things like managing your pain, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, COVID-19, telehealth, or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

More to explore


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25/Jun/2020

Living with a chronic musculoskeletal condition costs us physically, mentally and emotionally. But what many people don’t understand are the substantial financial costs associated with having chronic conditions. They’re expensive.

Healthcare costs

These are the most obvious. Medications, lots of trips to your doctor, your specialist/s, allied health professionals, tests, exercise classes, surgery, orthotics….they all add up. A lot!

People who don’t have a chronic condition may assume that a lot of this is covered by government subsidies, GP Management Plans, health insurance, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, with a little sprinkling of magical fairy dust to cover the rest. Depending on a person’s situation some of this may be covered. But much isn’t.

There’s significant cost in seeing allied health professionals such as physiotherapists, podiatrists, occupational therapists, hand therapists, dietitians and psychologists. While GP Management Plans assist with the cost, there’s mostly only five visits provided and these are used up very quickly. There may also be a gap payment over the Medicare Rebate. And there are also often considerable out of pocket expenses to see a specialist privately or longer waits when you see them publicly.

This can put a significant strain on a person’s finances.

Employment

Living with a chronic musculoskeletal condition is varied and episodic. That means you often don’t know how you’ll wake up. Your pain and stiffness may have been under control and manageable for some time, but then one day you wake up feeling crap. Your joints are swollen, it hurts to move, and you’re soooo exhausted. This makes it difficult to get up and move around, let alone get to work and put in a full day, as well as all the other things you have going on – family, friends, studying, chores, and a social life.

This may lead to time off work, and using up all your sick and personal leave. But if the situation (or workplace) becomes unmanageable it may result in someone having to permanently reduce their hours, change jobs, become unemployed or retire early.

Any of these things will obviously affect your everyday finances. However it can also affect your future finances as superannuation is impacted by reduced or lost income.

Wow. This became really depressing really quickly.

The good news is there are services to help you if you need to change careers, or need financial assistance while you re-evaluate what you can or can’t do. We’ve added a bunch of these to the More to Explore section below.

And while we know none of these services are perfect, they can provide you with many of the tools and resources to help you through this tough time.

Hidden costs

Lost employment and medical costs – check. They’re probably the most visible costs. But there are many hidden costs. We’ve listed just a few.

  • Home and car modifications – so that you can continue to do the things you want and need to do as easily and pain-free as possible you may need to make changes to your home and/or car. They may be simple and relatively inexpensive – e.g. adding a swivel seat to your car to help you get in and out, or more complicated and pricey – e.g. installing a chair lift to help you get up and down the stairs in your home. An occupational therapist can help you work out what modifications will assist you, and can also advise you of any available schemes or assistance programs you may be eligible for.
  • As well as changes to your home or car, you may also need to buy various gizmos and gadgets that: protect your joints (e.g. tap turners, pick-up reachers), help you manage your pain (e.g. heat packs) and generally make life a little easier (e.g ergonomic mouse for your computer, walking aids). Again these can range in price.
  • Getting out and about if you’re in pain, or dealing with serious brain fog, can be tricky if you don’t feel up to driving. It’s only made worse with the COVID pandemic, when many of us feel vulnerable catching public transport. So you might have to resort to catching a taxi or using a rideshare company. But over time this does add up. You may be eligible for a taxi subsidy – each state/territory has their own scheme – so it’s worth checking to see if you can access this.
  • Food, glorious food. Let’s face it there are many times you feel flattened by your condition and cooking is the last thing you want to do. And now with the convenience of delivery apps, you can get almost anything delivered to your door. Unless like me you live in an outer suburb in which case it’s fish n’ chips, pizza or burgers – yum, but not the healthiest options. These deliveries can be a lifesaver, but the cost can also very quickly add up.
  • Events and holidays. This’s a tough one. Because of the nature of chronic conditions and often not knowing how you’ll feel from day to day, you can pay for future events and then have to cancel or change at the last minute. Like tickets to a concert (remember those??) – you often buy them so far in advance and you’re excited for literally months! And then the night comes and you know you can’t go – you’re too tired, too sore, too whatever. So you have to forfeit your ticket, or give it away to a friend. Or you’re on holiday, but you end up having to pay to make changes because you’ve had a flare and you need an earlier flight home, or you need to catch more taxis than you’d planned to, or you need to buy a pillow because the one at your hotel is a rock. It’s the crazy, unpredictable stuff like this that’s hard to plan for and adds to financial stress.

Pandemic pain

And then came COVID.

Many of us are having to manage to do more on less, with fewer hours, less pay, or no pay. It’s the unpredictability of this pandemic that adds to financial stress, especially if things were already tight before COVID came along.

The best thing to do if you’re feeling anxious about your financial situation is to be proactive and sort it out ASAP. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away, and may make the situation worse. Choice has written a useful article that provides lots of handy info and tips: Making the right financial moves during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.

And check out the More to Explore section below for more resources to help you.

Contact our free national Help Line

If you have questions about things like COVID-19, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, telehealthmanaging your pain or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

More to explore


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04/Jun/2020

The opium poppy is such a pretty, delicate looking flower. And humans have been actively growing them and enjoying their medicinal benefits since at least 3,400 B.C. The Sumerians referred to it as Hul Gil or the “joy plant.”

It’s from these delicate plants we get opioids, a group of medications with which we have a long and complex relationship. They can provide great pain relief, but can also cause great harm.

That’s why on 1 June 2020 the Australian Government introduced some changes which affect how we use and access opioids. So let’s look at what opioids are, how they work, and why these changes have been brought in.

What are opioids?

Opioids are pain relieving medications that come in a variety of formulations, dosages and strengths. They include: tramadol, codeine, morphine, oxycodone and fentanyl. You need a prescription from your doctor to buy any medications containing opioids.

Opioids may be:

  • natural – created using the milky substance found inside the pods of the opium poppy, or
  • synthetic – created in a lab to have a chemical structure similar to natural opioids.

How do they work?

Opioids attach to opioid receptors in brain cells and dull our perception of pain. The pain isn’t gone, nor is the cause of the pain. It’s simply been dampened so that we can function with less discomfort. They also cause the brain to release the hormone dopamine, which can make us feel happy or relaxed.

Opioids are used to treat severe pain associated with cancer or for acute pain – e.g. following surgery.

They’ve also been used for many years to help people with severe, persistent non-cancer pain, like the pain associated with musculoskeletal conditions. However their long-term benefit is controversial for persistent pain or chronic pain. This is mainly due to the large body of evidence that shows that opioids have a limited effect on this type of pain. In addition they can also have serious side effects particularly with long term use, including breathing difficulties, addiction, overdose and death.

We also know that our body adapts to opioids when we use them long-term. We have to increase the dosage to get the same effect, and an increased dose brings an increased risk of harm.

Every day in Australia there are nearly 150 hospitalisations and 14 emergency department admissions due to opioid use, and three people die from drug-induced deaths involving opioids. (1)

Because of these alarming statistics the Australian government has been changing the way we access opioids. Last year we saw all opioids, even the lowest dose available, requiring a prescription from your doctor. You can no longer buy them over-the-counter.

The latest changes are a continuation of this plan to reduce the harm that opioids can do, and ensure that we use them cautiously and safely.

What’s changing?

From 1 June 2020 changes include:

  • smaller medication packs containing fewer opioids will be provided for short-term opioid use – for example after surgery or an injury,
  • improvements in medication information so people are better informed about the potential risks of opioids and how to reduce them, and doctors are following best-practise when prescribing opioids,
  • updating prescribing ‘indications’ (or when they’re used) to ensure opioids are only prescribed where the benefits outweigh the risks. (2)

Can I still use them for my musculoskeletal pain?

If you’re using opioids to manage the pain associated with your musculoskeletal condition, continue taking them as prescribed and talk to your doctor.

We do know some people experience pain relief using opioids for persistent pain, so if they’re proving to be clinically effective for managing your pain, your doctor will be able to continue to prescribe them. However these new changes will require your doctor to weigh the risks and benefits of these medications, and to explore possible alternatives with you, including enrolling in a pain management program. Also, where opioid use exceeds twelve months or is expected to exceed this time, a second opinion will be required to renew ongoing prescriptions.

Opioids aren’t a magic bullet and should be used in conjunction with other pain management therapies such as physiotherapy, exercise, weight management, cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness.

What now?

Living with persistent pain is exhausting. And the possibility of changing your medication can be stressful, especially if you feel like you’re managing your condition and your pain effectively. If you’re worried about these changes, talk with your doctor. Be honest about how you feel, but also be open to the possibility of trying new things to manage your pain. The aim is to keep your pain at a level that allows you to live your life and do the things you want and need to do. Opioids may be part of that, or they may be something that you’ll be able to phase out. It’s something that you and your doctor will need to discuss so that you get the best and safest outcomes.

Contact our free national Help Line

If you have questions about things like COVID-19, your musculoskeletal condition, treatment options, telehealthmanaging your pain or accessing services be sure to call our nurses. They’re available weekdays between 9am-5pm on 1800 263 265; email (helpline@msk.org.au) or via Messenger.

More to explore

References

(1) Prescription opioids: What changes are being made and why
Therapeutic Goods Administration, 29 May 2020 

(2) Prescription opioids: Information for consumers, patients and carers
Therapeutic Goods Administration, 29 May 2020 


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21/May/2020

Note: This blog was written in 2020, and so much has changed since then, including the availability of medications and vaccinations for COVID. For the most up-to-date info about treatments for COVID-19, visit the Australia Government, Department of Health website


At the moment there’s no treatment for COVID-19.

Wow, that was blunt. I probably should have eased you into it, but unfortunately that’s the truth. Regardless of what you may see on social media, or what a certain President might say at a press conference, we just don’t have a treatment for COVID-19 yet.

Doctors can treat many of the symptoms people are experiencing, but there’s no specific treatment for SARS CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2), the virus that causes the disease we know as COVID-19. There’s also no specific treatment for the severe complications that some people experience which has led to thousands of deaths worldwide

The reason for this is that it’s a new virus, one we’ve never encountered before. That’s why it’s referred to as novel coronavirus – it’s brand new so we have no immunity to it.

We have nothing in our medicine cabinet specifically designed to deal with this virus. Antibiotics don’t work – because it’s a virus and antibiotics only work against bacterial infections.

What we do have in our favour are the efforts of the world’s scientific and medical community working tirelessly to find ways to safely treat this disease. We also have the work that was done at the time of the previous coronavirus outbreaks.

In 2003 we saw an outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and in 2012 we saw MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). These coronaviruses are closely related to SARS CoV-2.

While a treatment for SARS or MERS didn’t make it to large, human trials, there were promising results in labs tests, animal studies and small clinical trials. These drugs were some of the first to be studied for use in COVID-19.

Medications currently used to treat other conditions, for example hydroxychloroquine which suppresses an overactive immune system in people with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), are also being investigated. If we can repurpose an existing drug it’s hoped that we may have a treatment sooner rather than later.

So let’s have a quick look at some of the treatments being investigated

Anti-virals

Viruses, like the one that causes COVID-19, have only one job – to make more of themselves. They get into the cells of bacteria, animals and people, hijack them, and turn the cells into virus making factories.

Anti-virals stop them from making more copies of themselves.

Researchers are currently investigating several anti-virals including those used to treat viruses such as Ebola and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).

There have been some early trials, using small numbers of people with COVID-19, that have had mixed results.

For example, remdesivir wasn’t effective against Ebola, but it had been effective against SARS and MERS in the lab and in animal studies. However we don’t yet have enough information to know if it will work in humans with COVID-19 or not.

Repurposing other drugs

As well as looking at ways to disable the virus and prevent people getting sick, researchers are also looking at medications we currently use for other conditions, to see if they’ll help people manage complications of the infection, especially those that affect the lungs and other internal organs.

The most widely talked about drug, hydroxychloroquine, works well to suppress the immune system in people with RA and lupus. However there’s limited evidence that it works for people with COVID-19. Trials are ongoing, including COVID SHIELD, a new trial being conducted at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne.

Other drugs that suppress the immune system are also being investigated including the RA drug baricitinib.

The focus on immune suppression is to help manage the “cytokine storm” that some people with severe COVID-19 experience. This is when the immune system releases too much of an immune protein (cytokine) into the blood. This causes a high fever and inflammation, and in severe cases it can lead to multiple organ failure.

However there’s concern that treating people with an immune suppressing drug when their body is fighting an infection may be dangerous. We need more information from large, randomised controlled trials before we know if these drugs will help or harm people.

Other therapies

As well as going through our medicine cabinet and looking at old drugs to treat a new virus, researchers all over the world are looking at other ways to treat COVID-19.

They include plasma therapy, a process that involves taking the blood plasma from someone who’s recovered from COVID-19 and transferring it to someone who has the disease; stem cell therapy to treat people experiencing acute respiratory distress and the gene-editing technology CRISPR to find antibody targets for the disease.

These are just some of the innovative therapies that are being investigated to treat COVID-19.

Lots of work to be done

While a lot has been achieved in a short amount of time, we need to remember that with all of these trials we’re still very much in the early stages. We just don’t have enough data to know if the drugs or therapies work and if they’re safe.

We can feel confident though that the world’s scientific and medical communities are making great progress in their efforts to find safe and effective ways to treat COVID-19. But it will take time, both to come up with a vaccine and to find a treatment that we can produce in sufficient quantities to deliver on a global scale.

So we need to continue with our physical distancing, maintain good hygiene, stay activeeat well  manage our mental health and follow the restrictions that are in place where we live. This will eventually pass, but it will take some time.

More to explore


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13/May/2020

Just the shot in the arm we need?

It’s seems crazy when you think about it, COVID-19 has had such a life changing effect on us, but unless you’re a healthcare worker, you probably don’t even know someone who’s had it. Yay for the success of our pandemic plan, but it also means most of us are still susceptible to it.

But we can’t stay in iso forever. Apart from all of the obvious reasons, we’ve run out of jigsaws, eaten all of the banana bread and we’re over video chatting to our friends about doing nothing.

It appears that the only way we can get back to our normal lives is if there’s an effective vaccine against COVID-19. So far the info we’re hearing from scientists developing vaccines these vaccines is encouraging. We’re even hearing that one may be available as early as September this year! But what are vaccines, how do they work and what are the chances we’ll have a vaccine for this virus any time soon?

Your immune system

To understand how vaccines work, it’s important to understand a little about your immune system. It’s designed to protect you against harmful diseases and infections caused by foreign bodies (also called pathogens) such as viruses, bacterium and other microbes. When your body detects the presence of a pathogen, your immune system mounts an attack to try to defeat it.

Side note: For those of you who have an autoimmune condition like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or ankylosing spondylitis, your immune system has gone a little bonkers and has attacked your own body instead of a potentially harmful pathogen. This really sucks. But we can help. Contact our Help Line on 1800 263 265 weekdays.

Vaccines

Vaccines work by introducing your immune system to a virus or bacteria. This allows it to learn how to protect you from the pathogen before you meet it out in the world. A vaccine is a weakened or inactivated version of the pathogen. It causes your body to create antibodies – these are the soldiers in the battle against the foreign invader. They have one target and one target only…the specific virus or bacteria that you were vaccinated against. If it ever encounters it, it latches on and destroys or disables it.

Well that’s the immune system and vaccines in the smallest of nutshells. Watch this short video How do vaccines work? for more info.

Now it’s time to look at COVID-19 and the efforts to create a vaccine against it. You may be wondering why a vaccine rather than a treatment? That’s a good question, and there’s a LOT of work going into finding effective treatments for COVID. But to treat someone, they already need to be infected. And because this virus is highly infectious, that person can go on to infect many others. So it’s preferable that we prevent this and any subsequent spread of disease is prevented altogether.

We know a lot about COVID-19

Even though there are still so many unknowns, we do know a lot about this virus. If you compare it to other new viruses or disease outbreaks, we’re so much further ahead, which is really good news. We knew the genetic makeup of this virus within a couple of months of the outbreak. Researchers used this info to develop tests for diagnosing COVID and to start working on potential vaccines and treatments. So we’ve come a long way in a very short time.

Types of vaccines

Just as there are different types of pathogens, there are different types of vaccines. The type of vaccine developed will depend on characteristics of the pathogen and how it affects people

Types of vaccines include:

  • A weakened, live version of the virus. We use this type of vaccine to prevent diseases such as measles, mumps, chicken pox and rubella. Note: people who have suppressed immune systems can’t use live vaccines.
  • An inactivated vaccine (e.g. flu vaccination). Chemicals are used to destroy the virus before being injected however it’s not as effective as a live vaccine, which is why we have regular boosters.
  • Vaccines that target specific parts of the virus, rather than the whole thing. This is used for diseases such as shingles, whooping cough and tetanus.

Creating a vaccine

A great article by The Conversation (31 March) outlined the steps involved in creating a vaccine for COVID-19:

  1. Basic understanding of the virus.
  2. Scientists decide which approach to use from the list above – i.e a live vaccine, an inactivated vaccine etc.
  3. Initial safety testing is carried out in animals to help us understand how it may affect people.
  4. Clinical trials being using people. There are three phases:
    • Phase I – testing on a small number of people, to see how safe it is, and if it has any side effects,
    • Phase II – testing on several hundred people to test for efficacy – or see if it works how it’s meant to work
    • Phase III – testing on several thousand people for efficacy and safety.
      If the vaccine can show it’s safe and provides effective protection against the virus, it will then go on to the next stage.
  5. Regulatory approvals.
  6. Production. This will involve a lot of work to create the quantities of vaccine we need to vaccinate large populations, and to ensure the vaccines are produced safely and with great attention to quality control.

For more information read: Coronavirus vaccine: here are the steps it will need to go through during development.

And….after all that we need to actually vaccinate people on a global scale! – which will take a great deal of planning and coordination.

So when will we have a vaccine?

The short answer is we don’t know. Most scientists say between 12-18 months. There are some who are more optimistic and say by the end of the year. With over 100 vaccines being researched around the globe, it may well be sooner rather than later. However we need to be mindful that we can’t rush this at the expense of safety.

So until a vaccine does appear we need to get comfortable with our new normal. We need to continue with our physical distancing, maintain high levels of hygiene, stay active, eat well, managing our mental health and follow the restrictions that are in place where we live. This will eventually pass, but it will take time.

More to explore




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