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Q. I'm worried about my sister. I'm afraid the herbal laxative she swears by is ruining her health.

Donna has always insisted that natural remedies are far superior to regular medicine. A herbalist told her to use senna regularly to flush toxins from her system.

Isn't it dangerous to use any kind of laxative too often?

A. We don't know what toxins your sister thinks she is flushing, but she could well be doing herself more harm than good.

Senna may be "natural" but that doesn't make it safe. This strong cathartic can cause cramping and diarrhea. Regular use can interfere with normal bowel function.

Your sister sounds like a laxative abuser. Fiber from bran and whole grains is a far more natural way to maintain regularity.

Filtered coffee is better

Q. I was interested in your report about Scandinavian scientists finding that coffee raised cholesterol.

I have been drinking coffee for about 85 years, since I was a youngster in a Swedish home. In the old days, we ground the coffee at home, put it in a pot of cold water and heated it on the wood stove until it came to a boil.

I drink four or five cups a day. It doesn't keep me awake and I don't worry about how much cholesterol it contains.

A. Coffee itself doesn't contain cholesterol, but researchers now believe that brewing coffee the old-fashioned way you describe leads to elevated cholesterol levels. The more boiled coffee a person drinks, the more of this undesirable blood fat the body makes. Filtered coffee appears safer.

Since you have already survived to a ripe old age, we see no reason for you to change your coffee drinking habits at this stage.

Second time's a charm

Q. I had a terrible case of bronchitis about a month ago. The doctor prescribed erythromycin and I felt better while I was taking the medicine. No sooner did I finish the 10 days of antibiotic, though, than I started coughing.

The doctor prescribed a different brand of erythromycin, E.E.S., and it worked perfectly. Why didn't it do the job the first time?

A. Untangling such a medical mystery is difficult, but there is one possible explanation. Erythromycin comes in several versions. Some, such as ERYC, PCE, Ethril, Erypar and Erythrocin work best when taken one hour before meals or two hours after.

If you were taking one of these brands with food, this might have reduced the potency of the antibiotic so much that it could not kill off all the bacteria. Since E.E.S. is not affected by meals, it would have been able to overcome the infection no matter when you took it.

No more than eight

Q. When I had the flu I took a liquid cold formula with 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen plus three or four Tylenols a day for a headache. I was surprised at how much better my bad back felt, and I'd like to maintain this relief. How many Tylenols can I safely take in a day?

A. The label says you should not take more than 4 grams (eight Extra Strength Tylenols) a day. Daily use over an extended period could increase your risk of kidney damage.

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