13 of Your Most Embarrassing Health Questions Answered
1. My husband claims he can’t control his loud, frequent belches. Should he see a doctor? Rafter-rattling burps can be
1. My husband claims he can’t control his loud, frequent belches. Should he see a doctor? Rafter-rattling burps can be a sign of acid reflux or even an infection with the ulcer-causing bacterium Helicobacter pylori. But it’s more likely that your spouse is simply swallowing more air than he realizes. We suck in about a teaspoonful with every swallow; body heat makes the extra air expand in our stomachs, creating the perfect set-up for an explosive belch. Gum chewing, sucking on hard candy, smoking, drinking carbonated beverages, gulping down food and beverages, and even things like excess saliva generated by poorly fitted dentures and sinus drainage (due to an infection or allergy) can lead to an excessive intake of air. Try to correct those problems first. If belching continues, your husband may need relief for reflux or an H. pylori infection, especially if he also has abdominal discomfort, indigestion, a bloated feeling, or frequent, mild nausea.
2. Nothing I do — brushing, flossing, mouthwash — gets rid of my bad breath. What will work? Brush your tongue or clean it with a tongue scraper. Bad breath usually means bacteria are munching on food residue in your mouth, then emitting nasty-smelling sulfur compounds. Cleaning the tongue removes the film of microscopic food particles and also evicts some of those ill-mannered microbes before they can gas again. In one New York University study, people who brushed their teeth and tongues twice daily for 60 seconds had a 53 percent reduction in breath-souring sulfur compounds after 2 weeks.
Rinsing with a mouthwash containing a germ-fighting ingredient, such as chlorhexidine, cetylpyridinium chloride, zinc lactate, or chlorine dioxide, is also effective. If these strategies don’t work, check your dinner plate: Garlic and onions contain odoriferous oils which, when digested, wind up in your bloodstream; they’re released in your lungs and can sour your breath for up to 3 days. Talk with your doctor or dentist if nothing seems to help. Stubborn bad breath can be a symptom of advanced gum disease, dry mouth, a sinus infection, tonsillitis, cryptic tonsillitis (when white debris collects in pockets in the tonsils), acid reflux, or a gastrointestinal or respiratory infection.
3. Nothing helps my BO. Am I doomed to stink? Stubborn body odor can be caused by bacteria that live on your sweat, by the foods you eat, even by your emotions. Start by washing your armpits — and a wide area around them — with antibacterial soap twice a day. If BO returns during the day, clean up again with alcohol wipes — portable, individually wrapped alcohol-drenched pads. After you wash up, apply a clinical strength antiperspirant/deodorant; these contain higher concentrations of sweat-inhibiting aluminum compounds, plus ingredients that make your skin more acidic, discouraging bacteria. Also apply it after bathing at night to keep the pores of your sweat glands closed. Keeping underarms shaved also helps discourage bacteria. Wear loose, natural-fiber shirts that allow sweat to dry; a moist environment encourages bacteria to grow.
Check your diet, too. Garlic, onions, chili peppers, black pepper, vinegar, blue cheese, cabbage, radishes, and marinated fish can all make BO stronger. In one study from Czechoslovakia, so did red meat. If BO persists, talk to your doctor. She can rule out medical causes such as hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating) as well as an abscess under your arm. While you’re there, ask about a prescription antibiotic cream containing clindamycin (such as Cleocin) or erythromycin (such as E-Mycin, Erythrocin, or Ilosone) to fight underarm bacteria. If your problem is excess sweating, another option is a drug containing oxybutynin (Ditropan) or glycopyrrolate (Robinul). These drugs are normally used for other purposes but have the side effect of drying up sweat. Unfortunately, they dry up all sorts of other secretions, too, and can have side effects including dry mouth and vaginal dryness. Another solution is botox. Injections of this toxin stop nerve impulses that trigger overproduction of sweat. In one study, botox reduced sweat production by up to 70 percent. You may need repeat injections to keep your shirts dry, however.
4. I had a painful, embarrassing boil. How can I prevent another one? A boil is a hair follicle that’s become infected with the highly contagious Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. These “staph” bugs live on the surface of human skin and even in our respiratory systems. Normally, the immune system keeps them in check. You can’t wipe them out, but there’s plenty you can do to prevent their spread.
- Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and water, and use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel when you can’t get to a sink.
- Bathe or shower daily and after using a hot tub, a swimming pool, a sauna, or a steam room. Use a mild antibacterial soap and clean towels and washcloths.
- Don’t use oils, oily moisturizers, or greasy sunscreen — they can trap bacteria. Opt for oil-free lotions and sunscreens instead.
- If boils return in an area that you shave, use a clean razor blade every time you shave. That means replacing the blade or soaking it in alcohol before reuse. Or opt for a hair-removal cream instead.
- Rinse scrapes and cuts, apply an antibiotic ointment, and keep them covered with clean bandages until healed.
- Don’t share razors, towels, clothes, or athletic equipment (at the gym, use germ-killing cleaner on equipment seats and handles).
- Avoid using powder in those areas that seem to build up sweat. The powder holds onto moisture, which breeds bacteria.
5. When I wear a dark shirt, there’s a snowstorm on my shoulders. What will get rid of serious dandruff? Start with a new shampoo, something mild; overenthusiastic washing simply may have dried out your scalp. If dandruff persists, use trial and error to find the right flake-fighter. Dandruff may be the result of anything from a desert-dry scalp to a skin condition called seborrheic dermatitis to eczema, psoriasis, or, very commonly, an overgrowth of a yeastlike fungus called malassezia. Different dandruff shampoo ingredients do different things. Zinc pyrithione targets fungus and bacteria; ketoconazole also fights fungus; coal tar and selenium sulfide slow the growth and die-off of skin cells on your scalp; salicylic acid loosens flakes so they can be washed away. If one doesn’t work, buy two or three different types and alternate between them. Still flaky? If nothing’s helped after a few weeks of shampooing with various formulas or if your scalp is irritated, see your doctor. She may prescribe a prescription-strength dandruff shampoo or another treatment if a skin condition like seborrheic dermatitis, eczema, or psoriasis is the real cause.
6. My feet stink so much that I’m afraid to take my shoes off in public. What will stop the odor? Beating “toxic sock syndrome” involves keeping your feet as well as your shoes and socks clean, dry, and bacteria-free. Controlling moisture is crucial; your feet have more sweat glands than any other body part, with the exception of the palms of your hands. Trapped in footwear for hours on end, sweat builds; bacteria feed on a protein in sweat and emit stinky isovaleric acid. For drier feet, change your socks at least once a day, wear shoes made from natural, breathable materials such as leather or canvas, and let shoes air out for at least a day before you wear them again. Knock out bacteria by washing your feet every day (some foot doctors recommend using an antibacterial soap). If foot odor persists, try soaking your feet in a solution of 1 part vinegar to 2 parts water once a day for a week; the acidity helps kill bacteria. Foot odor can also be caused by a bacterial infection set off by an advanced case of athlete’s foot. If you’ve noticed peeling skin between your toes or on the soles of your feet, see your doctor if an athlete’s foot cream or spray doesn’t solve the problem.
7. I’m frequently gassy. What can I do? Nobody’s gas-free. From prim-and-proper Aunt Martha to your gassy teenage nephew, everybody releases intestinal gas 13 to 21 times a day. Reduce your personal emissions by cutting back on beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and asparagus, all of which contain an indigestible sugar called raffinose that’s broken down by bacteria in your digestive tract. The by-product: stinky hydrogen sulfide. Taking a remedy like Beano before you eat may help; it contains an enzyme that breaks down raffinose. You can also reduce the raffinose in beans by thoroughly rinsing dried beans after soaking and by rinsing canned beans just before eating. Have heartburn? Stay away from sodium bicarbonate (the stuff in baking soda), found in some products such as Alka-Seltzer. It produces carbon dioxide, a gas that’s gotta go somewhere! If gas won’t quit, talk with your doctor. Medical conditions such as lactose intolerance (the inability to digest sugars in milk), gluten intolerance (the inability to digest the gluten protein in wheat and other grains), and irritable bowel syndrome may be behind it.
8. How do I avoid “leaks” when I laugh, sneeze, or pick up a grocery bag? Lose weight, quit smoking, and exercise your pelvic floor muscles every day. Carrying extra pounds and smoking both increase the risk for embarrassing stress incontinence. Age, hormonal changes, and pregnancy also contribute by weakening pelvic muscles and reducing the ability of the urethra (the fragile tube that lets urine exit from your bladder) to close tightly. Strengthening your pelvic floor muscles helps support the urethra and can reduce leaks by up to 60 percent. The trick? Working the right muscles. For women, it’s those that stop a stream of urine. For men, it’s the muscles you use to stop the passage of urine. The exercise: Contract your pelvic floor muscles for 3 seconds, then relax them for 3 seconds. Do ten repetitions, three times a day. Build up to 10 seconds for each contraction and each relaxation. Men should feel their penises pull in slightly toward their bodies. It’s also smart to go to the bathroom more often. If you empty your bladder regularly, it will less often fill up to a point of overflowing.
If leaks continue, women can wear a disposable “incontinence tampon” available by prescription. Inserted in the vagina to press against the urethra, they can be helpful during physical activities such as tennis. A pessary is another possibility. This is a stiff ring placed in the vagina that presses on the urethra, repositioning it to reduce leaks. Wearing a pessary can increase your risk for vaginal and urinary tract infections, so be sure to talk with your doctor about symptoms to watch out for. If low-tech strategies don’t keep you dry, surgery may. For women, several procedures are available using surgical threads, transvaginal positioning tape, or even sections of your own tissue to hold the bladder and urethra in position. A simpler procedure injects bulking agents into the urethra and neck of the bladder, to make them close more tightly. Medications called anticholinergics may also help by preventing bladder spasms. For men, an enlarged prostate may cause “urge incontinence,” leakage after a sudden, strong need to urinate. Your doctor can diagnose this condition and discuss options with you such as medications for prostate enlargement and surgery.
9. My ears and nose are sprouting hair like weeds. Do I get out the garden tools? Leave the lawn trimmer in the garage. And forget about plucking; it hurts like heck and can lead to infection. The best way to trim an unfortunate outcropping is with a nose and ear hair trimmer. These devices protect your skin from the cutting blades and are cleanable (a must!); some even have tiny headlights or can suck shorn locks out of your nose, so you don’t inhale them.
10. I keep forgetting names, words, appointments, and even where I’ve left the car. How do I know if it’s Alzheimer’s? Everybody forgets things once in awhile, and aging, stress, multitasking, and even some common medications can make memory lapses a little worse. It’s normal to occasionally forget names, appointments, or where you put those pesky car keys, and then remember the information later on. But one potential early warning sign for Alzheimer’s disease is forgetting important dates and names as well as new facts you’ve just learned (such as how to work the new TV), and then asking for the information over and over again. While it’s normal to lose your car keys, it’s not normal to forget how to use them. Forgetting why you’ve opened the refrigerator on a busy morning is normal, but forgetting how to find the kitchen in your home isn’t. Forgetting a name on the tip of your tongue is not a problem, but failing to recognize a close friend is. Other red flags include trouble doing familiar things like balancing a checkbook or following a recipe, losing track of what day it is, difficulty following a conversation, mood changes, and poor judgment. All are signs that its time to see a doctor for an evaluation.
11. I’m a woman with thinning hair. Are there any medical ways to regrow it? Try minoxidil (Rogaine). This over-the-counter hair restorer works by slowing down hair loss and encouraging the growth of new hair. In studies, 50 percent of the women who tried it for hair loss saw at least a little hair regrowth and 13 percent reported moderate regrowth. Developed originally for men, a 2 percent minoxidil solution is FDA approved for women, too. The 5 percent strength is not; it’s more likely to cause side effects like itching, irritation, and hair growth in unexpected places such as the face. Some dermatologists use the stronger formula but suggest doing so only under a doctor’s care. Women should steer clear of another male hair restorer, finasteride (Proscar). It is not FDA approved for women and can cause birth defects if used during pregnancy. Sometimes thinning hair is a sign of an underlying medical condition, like thyroid problems. It’s a worth a mention to your doctor.
12. What’s the best way to clean up crusty, yellowed toenails? Prescription antifungal pills. They clear up 50 to 75 percent of nail infections, which are usually caused by dermatophytes, the same fungus responsible for athlete’s foot. The best of the bunch contain the fungus-zapping active ingredient terbinafine (Lamisil), which studies show is more effective than two other types, itraconazole (Sporanox) and fluconazole (Diflucan). But these oral medicines can cause liver damage, raise risk for heart problems, and may interact with other drugs. If you’d rather not risk complications and interactions, ask your doctor about a prescription antifungal toenail “polish” containing ciclopirox (Penlac). This clear lacquer cleaned up crusty, fungus-ridden nails for 36 percent of the people who tried it in one 48-week study. Your treatment may work better if you also see your doctor several times during the 12-week treatment to have infected areas of your nails debrided, or cut away.
13. I have a wart on my finger. Is it contagious? Yes, but not very. All warts are infections caused by 1 of over 100 varieties of the human papilloma virus (HPV). In contrast to the highly contagious HPV types that cause genital warts, the types behind common warts of the hands and fingers are much less so. Still, direct contact could spread the virus to another person or to another part of your body. To treat one, try an over-the-counter remedy containing 17 percent salicylic acid. In one review of 13 wart-removal studies, salicylic acid cured 75 percent of warts.