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Q. Last spring I had the flu for a couple of weeks with a lingering cough. Before I got better I caught a cold, and at the end of the cold, a cough returned that was much worse than the cough I had with the flu. It was the sort of cough that made my whole chest vibrate.

One evening I was coughing so badly, I was afraid I would not be able to sleep. I tried everything I could think of; none of it was any help.

Finally I remembered hearing about sage. Scrounging in the kitchen, I found an old jar with dried sage in the bottom of it. I made tea from the sage, drank one cup, and the cough stopped! I was astonished!

The next day I bought some fresh sage and made tea from it for the rest of the week. It kept the cough under control until it was gone. Now I keep a bag of dried sage leaves in my kitchen cupboard -- just in case!

A. Sage has a long history as a healing herb, but scientists have not been able to confirm most of the benefits attributed to it. It does have a lot of tannin, which could make it useful as a gargle for sore throats.

We'd not heard before of sage as a cough remedy, but we're glad it worked. There is some concern that one of its constituents, thujone, may be toxic over a long period of time, so it is probably best to use it only occasionally, as needed.

Keeping leg cramps at bay

Q. My husband has had bad leg cramps at night for years. A friend told him to eat a banana every day to prevent them. My husband has eaten one banana every day for three months now and has had only one episode of leg cramps. Other people may want to know about this.

A. Thank you for the tip. In some cases, muscle cramps may be related to low potassium intake. Eating a banana might provide the needed potassium -- or perhaps something else in banana is having an effect.

Alcohol affects estrogen

Q. I am worried about my 27-year-old daughter. She is on birth control pills and also takes a lot of Extra Strength Tylenol or Advil for tension headaches. (Her job is very stressful.)

I'm sure she will be drinking at holiday parties, and I believe alcohol can affect the medicines she takes. Am I right to worry?

A. Alcohol can raise blood levels of estrogen. Over time, this could increase the risk of breast cancer. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB) or aspirin may upset the digestive system more when combined with alcohol. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can also be harder on the liver when accompanied by three or more alcoholic beverages on a regular basis.

People with diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease need to be especially careful about alcohol.

Flu and asthma

Q. My asthma is controlled most of the time with Flovent and Ventolin. If I come down with a cold or the flu, however, I'm in big trouble. Even with my meds I frequently end up wheezing.

I did not get a flu shot this year because I was afraid it would give me the flu like last year. Would the new flu medicine protect me from an asthma attack if I came down with the flu this winter?

A. We would discourage use of Relenza (zanamivir), which is a new, inhaled flu medicine. It may actually trigger breathing problems for some asthmatics.

The other new flu medication, Tamiflu (oseltamivir), may be more appropriate for you. This pill reduces symptoms of influenza without aggravating asthma.

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