Pill talk

October is Talk About Prescriptions Month, and Battery Safety Month, and ...

Published October 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

October is Talk About Prescriptions Month. So far, I have talked about
prescriptions with only one person, and that was a woman at the National Council on Patient Information and Education, which invented Talk About Prescriptions Month. I tried to talk about my birth control pills with her. "So," I began. "The pills are quite small, some white, some brown."

For someone whose job is to go around encouraging talk about
prescriptions, she was pretty tight-lipped. She told me she'd mail me a press kit and got off the phone stat, as they say in medicine land.

This was OK with me, for October is a busy month. I must make sure my jumper cables are rust- and corrosion-free with no exposed wires (October is Auto Battery Safety Month), gently brush the outer tooth surfaces using a vibrating back and forth motion (October is National Dental Hygiene Month), talk openly about family planning with my stepchildren (October is National Family Sexuality Education Month), disinfect food preparation surfaces twice weekly (Oct. 17-24 is National Infection Control Week), highlight adult and adolescent immunization issues (Oct. 10-16 is National Adult Immunization Awareness Week) and practice my home fire escape plan (Oct. 3-9 is National Fire Prevention Week).

Life has been hectic ever since I came into possession of the 1999
Health Observances Calendar, put out by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The calendar lists 158 nationally recognized months, weeks and days dedicated to health issues. Most, like October's, appear to have been more or less randomly assigned to their calendar months. Except for the ones in May. Something is going on with May.
Check this out: May is National
Melanoma/Skin Cancer Prevention Month. Presumably, this means we're supposed to strip naked and stand before a mirror, looking for scary moles and sores that do not heal. This is a stressful undertaking (the naked-in-front-of-the-mirror business alone does a number on me). You are
guaranteed to find some sort of suspicious skin blight that you never noticed before, which will cause your blood pressure to soar and/or ulcers to develop. And May just so happens to be National High Blood Pressure Month and National Digestive Diseases Awareness Month. Coincidence? You tell me.

During May we are also asked to be aware of many things we would rather not think about. May is Hepatitis Awareness Month, National Stroke Awareness Month, National Trauma Awareness Month and Tuberous Sclerosis Awareness Month. Before I could be aware of this last one, I needed to find out what it is. When I called the Tuberous Sclerosis
Association, I was told that it is "a genetic disease that manifests itself with tumors in organs and mental retardation." Being aware of Tuberous Sclerosis has made me nervous and depressed. Conveniently enough, May also contains National Anxiety Disorders Screening Day and National Mental Health Counseling Week. See what I'm getting at?

While many of May's observances seem to follow a visible logic, others
appear to have been scheduled simply out of spite. What else could have prompted the Better Speech and Hearing Month folks to choose the month that contains National Stuttering Awareness Week? Why else would the Correct Posture Month crew opt to choose the same time slot as the National Osteoporosis Month supporters?

Moreover, why was anything scheduled at all? How do these things come
about? According to the Department of Health and Human Services, it used to be that you had to lobby Congress to get a proclamation signed by the president -- National Headache Month, if ever there was one. But the White House apparently got tired of this some years back. Nowadays, groups "just sort of do it." Can anyone proclaim a day or month? More or less, said Bob Tuska of the National Cancer Institute. "I could declare today Bob Tuska Day." It has a nice ring to it, and I told him I would do whatever I could to promote it.

The press kit for Talk About Prescriptions Month arrived this morning.
My favorite suggestion is, "Flush any old medication down the toilet." I picture people standing before their medicine cabinets, grabbing any old bottle of pills and merrily flushing them down the toilet. The press kit also says to avoid storing tubes of ointment near tubes of toothpaste. This reminds me of a story, which I'll tell you, because it's Talk About Prescriptions Month. Once I woke up from a nap in Belgium, horribly jet-lagged. I was brushing my teeth, and realized that the toothpaste
tasted horrible. My husband buys us organic toothpaste, so I'm used to
brushing my teeth with something that is very close in taste and consistency to bathtub caulk, but this particular mouthful had attained new summits of unappetizingness. I looked at the tube, and realized that it was not in fact toothpaste but vaginal yeast infection cream. The funny thing is, it had a mild minty flavor to it.

It being Talk About Prescriptions Month, I called up the manufacturer to tell my story and to ask why a vaginal cream would have a minty flavor. You know, I mean, who is it there for?

Under the guise of asking her supervisor, the woman put me on hold so
as to tell her consumer-information colleagues she had a live one on line 6. Eventually she got back on and told me that there was no flavoring in this medication, and that what I had tasted was surely residual toothpaste. I thanked her and wished her a happy Bob Tuska Day.

By Mary Roach

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

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