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There has never been a time when we have paid so much attention to our health. But how can we differentiate between everyday aches and pains and more serious symptoms? Between the ailments that can be treated with home remedies and those that require a visit to the doctor?
It can be difficult to know where to draw the line, says Dr. Diarmuid Quinlan, a GP with a practice in Glanmire, Cork. “There are many self-limiting conditions, like earaches and coughs, that resolve on their own within days or weeks, but there are rare times when those same symptoms are signs of something more serious,” he says. “It is difficult to differentiate between the two.”
Whether you have a seasonal cold or need medical intervention, here’s how to tell the difference:
There are all kinds of causes for headaches, according to Kathy Maher, who runs Haven Pharmacy at Duleek in Co Meath with her husband Tom. “Stress, lack of sleep, dehydration, too much screen time, even hay fever can lead to headaches,” he says.
How to treat it at home:
Acetaminophen should do the trick, says Dr. Quinlan. “Even massaging your head can help, as can drinking some water or other fluids.”
See your GP if … your headache is constant, severe, recurring, or accompanied by other symptoms. “If you feel unwell, have nausea and have a fever, or if your headache doesn’t respond to pain relievers, see your doctor,” says Dr. Quinlan.
With more than 200 different cold viruses constantly circulating, we can all expect to catch two to three colds a year. Children can catch even more.
What we may not realize is how long it takes to recover from them. “People think they will recover from a cold in a day or two, but that doesn’t happen,” says Maher. “A cold can last up to two weeks.”
How to treat it at home: “Decongestants can be used to unblock the nasal passages,” says Maher. “Sprays and lozenges can relieve sore throats. The extra fluids will keep you hydrated and a simple inhalation of steam will help clear your head. “
See your GP if … your temperature rises and is persistent, if you have visual problems or severe pain. “What appears to be a cold at first can sometimes be the flu, which can be a much more serious illness,” says Maher.
However, you usually don’t need to visit your doctor if your symptoms are little more than a runny nose, mild cough, and mild fever.
Sleep disruption is not the only reason for tiredness. “Stress, whether physical or psychological, is a common cause,” says Dr. Quinlan. “Or it could be anemia, an underactive thyroid, diabetes or even hepatitis C, which is common but relatively undiagnosed in Ireland.”
How to treat it at home: Try to get eight hours of sleep a night. Exercise regularly and breathe as much fresh air as possible during the day.
See your GP if … none of these interventions make a difference and you are still constantly tired.
“This is usually caused by a viral infection and is very common in young children,” says Maher. “It can also be caused by a cold or hay fever or even blocked wax.”
How to treat it at home: “Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen early on for pain and inflammation,” says Dr. Quinlan. “The problem should resolve itself in three or four days.”
See your GP if … you have a discharge from the ear, if the pain is accompanied by dizziness or a severe headache, or if it does not improve within four days.
Abnormal vaginal bleeding
Possible reasons for this include infection, pregnancy-related conditions, cancers, and polyps, which are small, lumpy growths.
See your GP if … “You’re worried in any way,” says Dr. Quinlan. The keyword is abnormal. If there is no reason for the bleeding, see your doctor. “
Unintentional weight loss / gain
Possible underlying causes for this include thyroid problems, hormonal imbalances, food malabsorption, diabetes, and cancer.
See your GP if … you continue to lose or gain weight for no apparent reason. “Especially if there are other problems like coughing or blood in the urine,” says Dr. Quinlan.
Bloody stools or urine
Minor problems that can cause this include constipation, hemorrhoids, or a tear in the rectum. However, bloody stools can also indicate bowel cancer.
How to treat it at home: Increasing your fiber intake or taking an over-the-counter treatment can help with constipation. Pain relievers and oral creams can ease hemorrhoid pain, as can hot baths.
See your GP if … “The problem has no obvious cause and especially if there has been a change in your bowel habits,” says Dr. Quinlan. “Your doctor will probably ask you for a stool sample to send for analysis and a rectal exam may also be necessary.”
You should also visit your GP if your rectum is torn. This can cause a sharp pain during bowel movements followed by burning pain afterward. Your doctor may prescribe medications to speed healing.
“Dieting, or eating something that doesn’t feel right, is the number one cause of bloating,” says Maher. “However, it can be a symptom of more serious problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome.”
How to treat it at home: If you’ve eaten something that has made you bloated, try drinking some peppermint tea. Staying active can also help pass the wind, so try going for a walk.
See your GP if… the swelling is persistent or if there are other warning signs, such as extreme pain, bleeding or diarrhea, ”says Maher.
“Weight loss is another issue to consider,” adds Dr. Quinlan. “Swelling can be a symptom of ovarian cancer.”
“Some people have naturally low blood pressure and suffer from postural hypertension, which means they feel dizzy if they get up too quickly,” says Maher.
“Other possible causes of dizziness range from dehydration to excess caffeine, anemia, ear problems, or vertigo.”
How to treat it at home: “If you have postural hypertension, you need to learn to take care of yourself by getting up slowly, with support, or in a safe environment,” says Maher.
See your GP if … you suddenly start to have dizziness, if it occurs frequently, if it is persistent or if it is accompanied by vision problems.
“Coughing is usually part of a viral cold,” says Dr. Quinlan. “It is relatively minor and should resolve on its own in three to four weeks.”
How to treat it at home: Ask your pharmacist to recommend a cough syrup. Steam rubs, extra fluids, and inhaling steam can also help speed recovery.
See your GP if … “Your cough is persistent or you are coughing up blood,” says Dr. Quinlan. “If your cough is accompanied by chest pains, that also requires attention, as it can be a symptom of a heart condition.”
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