How Does Blood Pressure Work?

iStock
iStock

Your heart is the master pump for all the blood in your body. With every heartbeat, your heart pushes your blood to all the vital parts of your body, such as muscles and bones, through a network of arteries, capillaries, and veins. As blood flows through the tube-like arteries, it presses up against the walls of the blood vessels with varying degrees of strength. The strength or weakness of this pressure is called your blood pressure (BP).

Each time your heart squeezes, moving your blood to its various destinations, your blood pressure goes up—this number is referred to by a blood pressure reading as systolic. Then, as the heart relaxes after each contraction, your blood pressure goes down; that is called the diastolic reading. Together, these two numbers are presented as a score, systolic over diastolic: Your doctor might tell you that your BP is “120 over 80.”

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), normal blood pressure should reflect systolic pressure between 90 and 120, over a diastolic pressure between 60 and 80. Your doctor may take this measurement with a fancy-named instrument called a sphygmomanometer—an inflatable rubber cuff attached to a manual air pump. When the doctor inflates the cuff at your arm with air, it temporarily cuts off blood flow, and when it releases, the blood starts flowing again, revealing those two key numbers.

Nowadays, though, doctors are recommended to use an automatic blood pressure cuff, which relies on a different method and seems to be more accurate. While the manual cuff relies on auscultation, in which the doctor listens for the correct pressures using a stethoscope/microphone, automatic blood pressure cuffs are usually oscillometric. When blood passes under the cuff, the arm increases in circumference ever so slightly. And by measuring the amplitude of the oscillations (hence oscillometric) at a continuous interval of pressures, blood pressure can be calculated in much the same way.

If you have high blood pressure, a.k.a. hypertension—approximately 130/80 or higher in a person of average health—your heart is working too hard to pump the blood through your body, which becomes dangerous. According to the AHA [PDF], elevated blood pressure is 120–129/less than 80; hypertension stage 1 is 130–139 (systolic) or 80–89 (diastolic); and hypertension stage 2 is 140 or higher (systolic) or 90 or higher (diastolic). If your blood pressure hits 180/120, you're in hypertensive crisis, and you should get help.

If you fall into the above categories, your doctor will recommend changes to diet and exercise and probably medication. High blood pressure is often a precursor to heart disease or a heart attack and can be a side effect of other diseases, such as diabetes. However, your blood pressure can temporarily rise due to stress, pregnancy, and even some common medications, including over-the-counter pain relievers and antidepressants. One high reading will not necessarily mean you have hypertension—but it’s good to keep vigilant.

Editor's note: This story was updated in July 2018 to reflect new blood pressure guidelines from the AHA.

Why Does Scratching Make Itching Worse?

iStock/champja
iStock/champja

It feels like a biological blooper: A persistent itch is made worse by scratching, the one thing that provides instantaneous relief. Evolutionary biologists have proposed that the relationship between scratching and itching developed when disease-carrying parasites and insects bit humans, causing itching skin; scratching brushed the bugs away. Anyone suffering from a mosquito bite can understand that connection.

There’s no simple answer for why skin that has just been scratched becomes even itchier, but researchers have identified some mechanisms behind the irritating phenomenon.

Why Scratching an Itch Doesn't Help

Our sensory neurons are constantly bombarded with stimuli, so some sensations take precedence over others. Sensory signals of one type can be overridden by signals of other types if the latter are strong enough. The overridden signals don’t even reach the brain—they’re stopped by specific neurons in the spinal cord. In this way, the pain caused by scratching is often sufficient to drown out the itch—but only temporarily.

Cells in the brain stem produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, which quells pain. But according to Zhou-Feng Chen, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Itch at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, serotonin has an additional function. His group has found that as the serotonin spreads through the spinal cord, it can activate neurons that transmit itch signals to the brain, compelling us to scratch even more.

Each time we scratch, we put this cycle in motion. The increasing amount of serotonin may even make us scratch harder, until the urge to scratch becomes detached from any itch trigger on the skin. “It’s to try to suppress the itchy sensation, which occurs in your brain,” Chen tells Mental Floss. By this mechanism, itches can even become chronic.

Serotonin signaling isn’t the only way scratching worsens an itch; harm to the skin caused by scratching is another contributor. “When the skin barrier is irritated or further damaged, it releases certain pro-inflammatory factors that can directly aggravate itch by stimulating the sensory nerve fibers,” Brian Kim, M.D., co-director of the Center for the Study of Itch, tells Mental Floss. Those factors can also activate your immune system, and some types of immune cells around the affected area may produce chemicals that induce itch.

The very idea of scratching can also be a trigger. Chen’s research group reported last year that mice appear susceptible to scratching when they see other mice do the same. “Itching is actually contagious between people, between animals, and in your body itself,” Chen says. “When you scratch one place, you quickly want to scratch another area.” Scratching doesn’t just make itch more intense—it sometimes also causes the sensation to spread.

Relief for Itching

In mild cases, it may be possible to resist scratching through sheer force of will—but that’s not usually a long-term solution.

“I always feel bad because a lot of people say to patients, ‘Don’t scratch, don’t scratch,’ but that’s very challenging,” Kim tells Mental Floss. He says he tries to determine the cause of a person’s itchiness first. If it’s caused by an underlying medical problem, such as infestation with lice or liver disease, managing that issue may resolve the itch. Even if the underlying problem can’t be cured, there are medications that can calm itch in certain circumstances, such as antihistamines for allergy-induced itch and topical corticosteroids for itch caused by certain skin conditions, including eczema.

For now, drugs like these may be our best weapons against itching. “I think itch is often viewed as quirky, not serious, or embarrassing,” Kim says, which explains why there’s little research on itch despite its impact on our lives. Unfortunately, that coveted scratch in a bottle remains out of reach.

What's the Difference Between Mold and Mildew?

iStock.com/AndreasReh
iStock.com/AndreasReh

We’re all familiar with colorful spots of something growing in our showers and in other dark, damp areas in our homes, but you may not know what to call it. Is it mold, or is it mildew? What is the difference between the two, anyway?

Both terms refer to fungus, but as it happens, it’s a squares-versus-rectangles situation. Mildew is a type of mold. The term typically describes fungi that grows flat, on surfaces like the walls of your shower or window sills. There are also several types of mildew that are specific to plants—powdery mildew and downy mildew are parasites that grow on certain trees, flowers, and crops, for example. While mold might be a colorful green or black, mildew is typically white.

The word mildew originally came from honeydew, a term for sticky secretions aphids and other insects leave on plants, which people used to think came from the sky, like dew. Eventually, the word came to refer to the mold caused by the fungi that fed on these secretions.

Leaves covered in white powder
Powdery mildew on maple leaves
iStock.com/kazakovmaksim

Most of the household growths we refer to as mold belong to just a few families of fungi species. According to the CDC, the most common indoor molds are Cladosporium, Penicillium, Aspergillus, and Alternaria. Household molds can be a variety of colors, from orange-brown to green to gray to black. (Note that not all mold that is black in color is the more toxic species we call “black mold,” or Stachybotrys.) In contrast to the powdery texture of mildew, molds are typically fuzzy or slimy.

In nature, mold can play an important role in the ecosystem, breaking down dead plants and leaves. In your house, those decomposition abilities aren’t quite so welcome. Mold spores fly through the air, and when they land in moist places, they start to grow—whether that’s on food, your ceiling, paper products, wood, carpet, leather, or elsewhere around your house—and in the process, destroy whatever they're growing on. Unlike mildew, most molds grow down into the surface of its habitat, making them more difficult to remove. In porous materials, mold grows into all the empty crevices, which is why it is often impossible to remove all the mold from ceiling tiles (or soft foods like bread).

Mold growing under a windowsill and near the carpet of a home
Mold growing in a Nashville home following a flood
Martin Grube, FEMA // Public Domain

Getting rid of the unsightly growth in your damp bathroom is more than just a matter of aesthetics. Indoor mold can cause allergic reactions, such as a stuffy nose or itchy eyes, and can lead to infections for people with compromised immune systems. Some people are more sensitive to mold than others, and may experience more symptoms when exposed to it. Generally speaking, though, mold spores are everywhere, so you’re never going to live a totally mold-free life. Spores will come into your home through windows, doorways, ventilation and climate control systems, and via your clothing, shoes, and pets.

But there’s only one way to effectively inhibit mold growth at home: Get rid of the moisture. That means fixing leaks, getting better ventilation, and possibly running a dehumidifier, according to the CDC’s recommendations on mold.

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