Every day brings health news, but only a few stories capture our imagination.
In 2010, these stories ranged from the semi-comic to worrisome to tragic. Some held our interest for months. Some were red-hot Internet items that everyone talked about for a day or so.
Many of the stories that most moved us were about celebrities whose sudden brushes with serious illness or death brought home to us our own vulnerability, and motivated us to protect our own health and that of our families.
Quite a few of the year's most important health stories reflect the times in which we live. They looked at how economic stress affects our sleep, our diet, and our relationships. They looked at the changing world in which our children are growing up. And they helped us learn to recognize dangers we can avoid and to cope with those we can't.
Here are WebMD's picks for the five stories that made the biggest impact on our readers' lives. For better or for worse, they changed the way we live and the way we think about our health.
1. Bedbug Invasion
They were supposed to be gone, a throwback to the times of Dickens.
But way back in 2003, exterminators told WebMD that they were getting about 50 times more calls about bedbugs than in previous years.
This year, it became official: Bedbugs have successfully invaded the U.S. A survey of U.S. pest control companies confirmed that bedbugs are biting from coast to coast -- and the news got under America’s skin. Blame international travel and the elimination of pesticides like DDT, which can destroy the critters.
Tell the truth: Haven't you been checking your sheets for telltale specks, or searching for lentil-sized bugs in the seams of your box springs? When you check into a hotel, do you leave your luggage on the tile floor of the bathroom while you check the bed for signs of infestation?
If not, it may just be a matter of time. Go ahead, check out our bedbug slideshow, featuring pictures of both the bugs and their bites.
The good news about bedbugs is that they don't carry diseases. The bad news is that it's really hard to get a good night's sleep if you're trying not to let the bedbugs bite -- and that it's hard to get rid of the icky critters.
2. Fatigued Nation
The nation's long recession took its toll in 2010. It's unfair, but the loss of a job may weaken one's health. Stress goes up, insurance goes away, relationships are strained. For those lucky enough to remain employed, we may feel we have to do three times as much to keep our jobs, and the mere threat of joining the jobless is enough to keep us up at night.
And that's a major health threat that we’re learning more about every year. Yes, health has many components. But Americans tend to forget that getting enough sleep is one of them. One in five of us suffers daytime sleepiness -- and more than 1 in 10 suffers actual sleep deprivation.
That's making us very tired. It's also bad for our health. A slew of studies reported in 2010 hammer home that point.
One alarming study finds that the common practice of sleeping less than seven hours a day increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. And sleeping less than five hours a day doubles this risk.
It's bad enough that stress makes many of us want to eat too much. This may lead us to go on a diet. But it turns out too little sleep makes it harder to lose weight.
The same thing goes for catching a cold. Stress weakens the immune system -- and so does too little sleep.
And talk about a vicious circle. Not only can the stress of job loss make you lose sleep, but too little sleep could make you lose your job. In a 2010 survey, many Americans report that their lack of sleep affects their job performance.
3. Return of Whooping Cough
Thanks to vaccination, the once-common childhood plague called whooping cough became extremely rare in the U.S. But once again, a foe we thought long vanquished came back with a vengeance. So when kids started coming down with the disease -- officially known as pertussis -- doctors who had never seen a case were slow to recognize it.
That changed dramatically in July, when the CDC reported that six California infants died in the state's worst whooping-cough outbreak in 50 years. By year's end, the outbreak had claimed 10 infant lives and California conducted a massive vaccination campaign. Slowly, it has started to show up in other states, too, and we can’t predict when the spread will stop.
Experts said that unvaccinated children were partly to blame for the epidemic, along with adults who had waning immunity because they never got a booster shot. Later in the year, the CDC's vaccine advisory panel broadened its recommendation for Americans of all ages to get booster shots with the Tdap (tetanus-diphtheria-acellular pertussis) vaccine.
Could you recognize the "whoop" of whooping cough? Check out WebMD's audio guide to coughs. And for everything you need to know about this killer disease, WebMD provides a Q&A with the CDC's pertussis expert.
4. Consequences of Concussions
Football is a game of violence. The players are our gladiators, and for decades, we celebrated the players that could take a hit and just “shake it off.” Our children were schooled in the sport’s toughness.
With bowl games both college and Super drawing near, attention is focused on the growing awareness that concussions can mean serious brain damage for professional and college football players.
But it's not just a problem for big-time athletes, a series of 2010 reports shows.
In January, Canadian researchers found that about a third of kids diagnosed as having a "concussion" actually suffered traumatic brain injury. They warned that parents should not be reassured if they're told their child "just suffered a concussion."
Concussions in youth sports seem to be getting more common. The number of children treated for sports-related concussions has doubled in the last decade.
And even if a head impact doesn't result in the diagnosis of concussion, there could be trouble. A small but scary study found that high school football players who endure multiple impacts to the head may suffer brain damage -- even if they were wearing approved football helmets. Another found that repeated head traumas may raise the risk of symptoms seen in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s causing many parents to think twice about letting their kids play football, not willing to take the risk.
The pros are trying to put rules in place to stem the tide of injuries, but until the mentality becomes commonplace for all ages, football will be under tough scrutiny.
5. Understanding Health Care Reform
2010 will go down in history as the year Congress finally reformed the U.S. health care system. It was a historic event -- and a historic struggle.
Everyone agreed the U.S. health care system was broken. But it seems no two Americans entirely agreed about how to fix it.
As President Obama's plan wound its way through Congress, it seemed the health care reform bill changed every day. Would we get a Europe-style government program? Would health care remain in the hands of the insurance industry?
Throughout the struggle, WebMD kept Americans informed on the plans put forward by key players and how the reform bill changed during the process.
But when the bill became law, what did we have? And more importantly, what did it mean?
Americans challenged to interpret the new health care reform law -- and the multiple time points at which it gradually takes effect -- wanted to get answers about how health care reform would affect them.
In September, when a number of key provisions in the new law were to take effect, WebMD asked the web community to send in their questions -- and then we sat down with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to answer those concerns. Readers can continue to learn more about health insurance and how health care reform will affect them through the Health Insurance Navigator blog.