Can dogs improve our health?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm on the fence about getting a dog. My wife claims that pets -- particularly dogs -- can improve our health. Is that true?

DEAR READER: When I was growing up, there was always a dog in the family. And I mean "in the family": They were a part of the family, often coming with us when we went on errands. Some of my friends never had a pet, so I once asked my mother why we always had a dog. She replied: "Dogs are good for us." I remembered that answer when I got your question.

I’m at risk for osteoporosis, are there any foods I should avoid?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I am at increased risk for osteoporosis. Are there any foods or drinks I should avoid?

DEAR READER: Osteoporosis is a bone-weakening condition that increases your risk of fractures. Though your bones may seem unchanging, they are continuously being broken down and rebuilt. (I've put an illustration of this process below.) Osteoporosis occurs when more bone is broken down than is rebuilt. Osteoporosis is most common in postmenopausal women, but other people are also at risk.

What are some healthy habits to help manage your weight?

DEAR DOCTOR K: One popular book claims that there are "7 habits of highly effective people." Do people who effectively lose weight and keep it off also have habits in common?

DEAR READER: That's a very interesting question -- and I think the answer is "yes." There are certain "habits" that help, but only if you make a long-term commitment to them. Lasting weight loss demands that you transform your eating and exercise habits. But many other choices you make each day can also make a difference. What follows are several habits that can help people achieve -- and maintain -- their target weight.

Can hammertoe be reversed?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Can hammertoe be reversed?

DEAR READER: The four smaller toes of your feet are composed of three small bones, connected by two joints. Hammertoe develops when tendons and ligaments -- the fibrous tissues that connect muscles and bones to one another -- contract. Instead of lying flat, the toes very slowly start to hump up. A bend develops in the joint between the first and second bones; the tip of the toe starts to curl up. The toe resembles a hammer, hence the name.

Is eczema just dry skin?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I took my son to the doctor because he was constantly scratching his legs. The doctor says it's eczema. Is that just a fancy word for dry skin?

DEAR READER: Eczema (also called atopic dermatitis) is more than dry skin. It is an allergic skin condition that can make a child miserable. Treatment can usually help control the condition and ease its symptoms. Eczema can look different in different children. It can be bumpy or scaly, with small or big patches. The amount of redness also varies. Dry, scaling skin usually occurs along with it.

What are alternative therapies for rheumatoid arthritis pain?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I have rheumatoid arthritis. Medications have helped, but only up to a point. Can you discuss alternative therapies that might help to further relieve my discomfort?

DEAR READER: Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a long-term disease in which the body's immune system attacks healthy tissue lining the joints. This causes swelling, pain, redness and stiffness in joints throughout the body. Drug treatments slow the effects of the disease, but alternative approaches can also help to reduce inflammation and relieve pain.

Should I be concerned about my heart while shoveling snow?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Every winter my wife worries that I am going to have a heart attack while shoveling snow. Does she have cause for concern?

DEAR READER: She does. Each winter, more than 1,200 heart-related deaths occur during or after snowstorms. Shoveling snow is risky for many reasons: Shoveling is similar to weight lifting. Resistance exercise raises both heart rate and blood pressure, stressing the heart. Cold weather affects the heart. To conserve body heat in the cold, blood vessels narrow. This raises blood pressure and puts stress on the heart.

Is yogurt a healthy choice for breakfast or as a snack?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Is yogurt a healthy choice for breakfast or as a snack?

DEAR READER: You've heard me talk frequently about "good" and "bad" fats, and "good" and "bad" carbs. So it won't be surprising when I say there are "good" yogurts and "bad" yogurts. Here's what I mean. Yogurt -- plain, low-fat yogurt -- is a healthy food. But many yogurt products contain ingredients you could do without, like added sweeteners. So let's talk about what to look for in a healthy yogurt.

Should my child get the measles vaccine?

DEAR DOCTOR K: Should I vaccinate my daughter against measles?

DEAR READER: I was born before there was a measles vaccine, and I got the measles. Like most kids, I had a rash and a fever. (See the feature image for a photo of the measles rash.) And, like most kids, within one or two weeks I was back to normal. I remember, though, that my mother seemed more worried about me than she had been when I caught other viral illnesses. She knew three things I didn't. First, measles could sometimes cause very serious illness (blindness, brain and lung infections), even death.

Are poop pills really used to treat diarrhea?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I overheard a colleague talking about "poop pills" used to treat diarrhea. That can't be right. Can it?

DEAR READER: Yes, "poop" means what you think it means. Same thing as "doo-doo." It's gross, but it's true. So-called "poop pills" are being used to treat diarrhea caused by bacteria called Clostridium difficile, or "C. diff." Let me explain. Our intestines are filled with many different kinds of bacteria. Most live happily there; they don't invade or attack the intestine that is their home.