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Should we be ingesting bacteria for goodness sake?


Dr Nina Byrnes

Dr Nina Byrnes

Dr Nina Byrnes

A lot of people I know have started taking probiotics. They say these are good for gut health and can help with a whole other list of health problems. There are many advertisements promoting these also. Are probiotics genuinely beneficial to health and is it necessary to take them?

DR BYRNES: Probiotics are live micro-organisms that are either the same or similar to those found in the body that scientific research has found to be beneficial to health. These are commonly referred to as "good bacteria".

They have become very popular in recent years. Although there has been much talk about probiotics in recent times they have in fact been around for generations. They are the live active cultures that are found in yoghurts and cheese. Now they are also available in a range of drinks, capsules and even health bars.

It isn't entirely clear how probiotics work. They may inhibit or destroy toxins released by bad bacteria, strengthen the immune system by helping the antibody response to certain vaccines or produce substances that help prevent infection, prevent harmful bacteria growing in the gut and produce B vitamins which assist in the metabolism of food and assist in healthy functioning of the skin and nervous system.

There are many different types of probiotics. The two most common groups are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Different strains of these probiotics may provide different benefits.

Probiotics are most commonly used to promote digestive health. It has been suggested that these may help with irritable bowel syndrome. Taking these may help regulate bowel motions and help reduce bloating and wind. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease are two conditions which cause some similar symptoms to irritable bowel syndrome but there is also underlying inflammation of the intestines which may come and go. Studies have suggested that gut bacteria may play a role in these conditions and that probiotics may help reduce inflammation and delay flares.

Probiotics have been shown in studies to help shorten cases of infectious diarrhoea especially in babies and small children. Taking probiotics when you are taking an antibiotic may also help reduce the chance of antibiotic-related diarrhoea, with two studies suggesting they reduce the risk by 60pc.

Probiotics may also help in urogenital health. Hormonal change such as that with the pill, childbirth, menstruation and menopause may alter normal urogenital bacteria and taking probiotics may help rebalance the ecosystem. The benefit of probiotics in recurrent urinary tract infections is still under investigation.

Other potential benefits under investigation include the possible benefits in skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, allergies and oral health.

Probiotics are considered generally safe but it is important to discuss this with your doctor before taking them. They may not be suitable for those with reduced immune systems or in the elderly and they may interact with some medication. The production of many probiotics is unregulated and the strength and purity of brands may differ. It is important to stress that the benefits of probiotics are still under investigation and they are not routinely recommended in healthy asymptomatic individuals.

My baby seems to keep getting eye infections

Her eyes are sticky all the time and I have to keep bathing them. I'm not sure why this keeps happening. She is three-months-old and otherwise healthy.


DR BYRNES: Parents often worry that discharge from a baby's eye is an infection but that isn't always the case. In new born babies recurrent tearing and discharge from the eye may be due to a blocked nasolacrimal (tear) duct.  About one in 20 newborn babies will have an immature tear duct. This is usually due to the failure of a membrane at the end of the duct to open at or near the time of birth. This effectively causes a blockage in the drainage system.

Symptoms of this condition include watering or tearing of the eye that starts days or weeks after birth.

There may be sticky discharge at times as the normal process for clearing bacteria from the surface of the eye is impaired. Thankfully the tear duct issue resolves itself in ninety percent of cases by the time the child is 12 months. So specialist review or any kind of procedure is not necessary unless infections are severe or symptoms persist beyond the first year of life.

Antibiotic drops or ointment may be used if discharge is thick or the conjunctiva is becoming infected or inflamed. The conjunctiva is the white part of the eye and redness here could suggest infection. Antibiotics don't clear the duct and discharge can reoccur. Your doctor may swab the eye to identify the bacterial cause of infection.

One way to promote clearing of the duct is to perform nasolacrimal massage. This involves massaging from the inner corner of the eye to the outer corner of the nose. This may need to be done many times a day. If symptoms persist more than a year you may be referred to see an eye specialist who can perform a procedure to clear or open the duct.

Occasionally a sticky eye may be due to more serious infections such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea. If the baby is unwell or the eye itself is very red other treatment may be required. This is very rare.

Health & Living