Maybe it’s a sprained ankle that still feels wobbly months later. Or colds that seem to leave you coughing for weeks afterward.
Sometimes, minor health problems hang on for much longer than expected or become chronic nuisances. That might be because with age, the natural weakening of the immune system slows the healing process. But a factor such as medication overuse or a condition you might not know you have—such as asthma—can also play a role.
That’s why it’s important to treat minor problems properly. “Choosing the right approach to seemingly simple problems may prevent them from turning into complex ones down the road,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser. Here’s a look at how to handle five common health problems so that they don’t affect you long-term:
Using an over-the-counter pain reliever to ease pain too often could backfire. About 2 percent of Americans experience medication-overuse headaches, which can be caused by overreliance on OTC acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic), aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen, or prescription drugs such as triptans and ergotamines for migraine, and opioid painkillers.
“While the medicine initially reduces pain, your body becomes used to it, so when the drug wears off, pain returns,” says Richard Lipton, M.D., director of the Montefiore Headache Center at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y.
Treat it right. If you often feel the need to take OTC medication for headaches more than once per week, see your doctor. You might have undiagnosed migraines. In that case, you may be a candidate for a migraine prevention drug such as metoprolol (Lopressor, Toprol, and generic) or propranolol (Inderal and generic).
You should also speak to your doctor if you are using OTC pain relievers for another ailment, such as arthritis, for more than a few consecutive days. That, too, can cause rebound headaches.
It’s best not to take these pain-relieving drugs more than two or three days per week and to give yourself at least a day off between treatment days. “It’s not how much you take in a day,” Lipton says. “It’s taking it for a couple of days in a row without a break that causes the problem.” In addition, try to focus on nondrug therapies such as physical therapy and exercise.
Prevent recurrences. If you have headaches more than half the days of each month, see a headache specialist. He can help you gradually taper off OTC pain pills and recommend appropriate therapies. “You shouldn’t try to do this yourself, especially since in the first several weeks your headaches may increase in frequency and severity,” Lipton says.
Up to 30 percent of people who sprain an ankle end up with chronic ankle instability, so the ankle can wobble while walking, sprain repeatedly, and be painful and swollen for months. This can occur even if the initial sprain is mild, according to a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports.
Treat it right. You can skip icing; it isn’t very effective. A 2013 review by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) found that an over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, and generic) or naproxen (Aleve and generic) can help with pain and swelling. Elevating the ankle and wrapping it in an elastic bandage can also reduce swelling, but unwrap it once the swelling subsides.
If you have more than mild bruising and swelling, see your doctor. “You want to rule out a minor fracture, bone contusion, or a torn ligament, since these usually don’t heal on their own,” says Steven L. Haddad, M.D., a senior attending physician at the Illinois Bone & Joint Institute.
Prevent recurrences. Within the first 48 to 72 hours, begin gentle exercises such as foot circles (20 rotations clockwise and 20 counterclockwise) twice daily. These help you get back to activities you enjoy sooner, Haddad notes.
The NATA study also found that balance exercises are important for reducing the rate of reinjury. (Go to acsm.org or ask your doctor whether you’d benefit from physical therapy.) If you have already had repeat sprains, have your doctor recommend at-home exercises or physical therapy.
Do colds seem to stick around for weeks or turn into bronchitis? Almost two-thirds of adults who had at least two episodes of bronchitis over five years were actually found to have mild asthma, according to a study in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
“A simple cold can inflame your lower airways, exacerbating asthma symptoms such as a cough and chest tightness,” explains Bradley E. Chipps, M.D., president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
Treat it right. See your primary care physician if a wet cough from a cold lasts more than 10 days. “It’s not uncommon for someone with undiagnosed mild asthma to complain that a cough from a viral infection lingers for many weeks or even months,” Chipps says. Your doctor can order tests such as spirometry to determine whether you have asthma.
Prevent recurrences. If you notice that coughs routinely last for weeks after a cold, see your doctor, especially if you also notice asthma symptoms such as shortness of breath and chest tightness.
If you do turn out to have mild asthma, your doctor can advise you on how and when to use prescription bronchodilators and inhaled corticosteroids to keep problems from flaring up when you get a cold.
Most stomach bugs run their course in a few days. But about 10 percent of people with a bacterial gastrointestinal infection such as salmonella or E. coli go on to develop a type of irritable bowel syndrome known as postinfectious IBS. The condition, which can bring alternating diarrhea and constipation, can result from inflammation that fails to fully resolve once the infection changes bowel function and the nerves that regulate GI-tract function, according to Jay Kuemmerle, M.D., chair of the division of gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.
Treat it right. Stay hydrated and follow the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, apples, and toast) while you’re ill. For a GI infection that lasts more than five days, see your doctor. If a stool sample reveals neither bacteria nor elevated levels of infection-fighting white blood cells, this can indicate postinfectious IBS, Kuemmerle says. About half the time this goes away on its own within a couple of weeks, but for some, symptoms last for months or years.
Prevent recurrences. You can’t avert postinfectious IBS, but stress, anxiety, and smoking increase the likelihood. If you develop it, follow a low-FODMAP diet. (“FODMAP” stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols—all carbohydrates.) On it, you’ll skip typical gas producers, such as beans, and foods that contain wheat or fructose, such as apples, cherries, mangoes, and pears. Several studies—including one published last year in the journal Gastroenterology—found that this plan significantly relieved symptoms.
Other treatments could include probiotics to rebalance gut bacteria and prescription drugs such as eluxadoline (Viberzi) and alosetron (Lotronex and generic) to reduce diarrhea and abdominal pain.
UTI: When to Treat, When to Wait
An untreated urinary tract infection can spread to the kidneys and bloodstream, which can be dangerous. But in older adults, it can be complicated to determine when a UTI is actually present. Up to 10 percent of women older than 60 and 5 percent of men older than 65 may have some bacteria in their urine. But this doesn’t mean they have UTIs.
UTIs are thought to bring frequent, painful urination. But in older adults, they might instead cause symptoms such as agitation and confusion.
If a test finds bacteria in your urine but you have no UTI symptoms, you usually don’t need treatment, says Neil Grafstein, M.D., director of female and reconstructive urology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. In these cases, antibiotics are unnecessary and boost your risk of developing antibiotic resistance and gastrointestinal infections.
Treatment is warranted if you have symptoms. And if you have the unusual signs noted above, call your doctor immediately. Delaying treatment can increase the likelihood of kidney and bloodstream infections.
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2017 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.
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