We're all guilty of it: Googling our medical symptoms when something isn't quite right. The results can be alarming. And for many of us, when we do find ourselves sitting in front of a medical professional, we have no idea what to ask. You are not alone. October is Health Literacy Month, the time to brush up on all things health related so you can make the best medical decisions.
It’s also a time to educate ourselves on some of the most common – and/or annoying – ailments that plague us.
Here are five things you should know about your body and mind before you melt down when you’re looking your symptoms up.
1. IS A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE A BAD THING? CYBERCHONDRIA IS REAL.
You may be a cyberchondriac (a relatively-new term) if your condition seems to worsen as you seek answers on the internet.
Matthew W. Gallagher, co-director of the UH Department of Psychology Trauma and Anxiety Clinic of Houston, says cyberchondria refers to searching the web excessively for health care information. The more you search, the worse your perceived fate becomes. He recommends remembering that there are often multiple potential explanations for physical symptoms, so don’t automatically assume the worst if there is no evidence from doctors suggesting an illness.
Gallagher also offers these tips:
- Knowledge is power – If you have questions about unexplained symptoms, focus on information from valid medical websites such as those that end with .gov and .edu. They are typically the most reliable.
- Stress and anxiety can have a profound impact on physical health, so sometimes the best plan is to focus on healthy coping strategies to manage stress and health behaviors like sleep, exercise and diet.
- If you find yourself struggling with excessive concerns about unexplained symptoms, psychotherapy may be helpful for dealing with Illness Anxiety Disorder (formerly hypochondriasis). Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of psychotherapy that can help people learn strategies for coping with anxiety.
2. THE SKINNY ON SKIN, THE BODY’S LARGEST ORGAN
They say the eyes are the window to the soul. But skin – as the body's largest organ – is a window to your health. Is your skin too pale? Cool and clammy? These are signs that the body's resources, such as blood, are being diverted to other vital organs. The inside of everyone’s bottom lip is pink. If yours is another color, it could signal trouble.
Sonya Wade, clinical assistant professor in the UH College of Nursing, offers these suggestions:
- Be vigilant, go on full mole patrol: Make a full-body annual screening of your skin a habit. This can be conducted during a wellness exam with a primary care physician or with a dermatologist.
- Check yourself for unusual growths or moles once a month and assess them using the ABCDE Rule, noting that if you see these symptoms, you might want to check in with a health care professional:
- A – Asymmetry (one side doesn’t match the other side)
- B – Border (irregularity, jagged)
- C – Color (multicolored)
- D – Diameter (diameter is great than 6 mm, roughly the size of a pencil eraser )
- E – Evolution (change in size, shape or symptom)
- Use SPF 30 or higher sunscreen.
3. & 4. FLOATING AND TWITCHING: TWO ANNOYING EYE CONDITIONS
Sometimes those odd little eye floaters can signal something serious, such as a tear, detachment of the retina or even diabetes. But when should we be concerned? And what’s with annoying eyelid twitches? Why do we get them and how can we make them go away?
Optometry Professor Nick Holdeman, associate dean for clinical education and executive director, University Eye Institute, says it is not unusual to see spots, specks or cobwebs (floaters) that seem to swim through your field of vision. He offers this advice:
- Floaters themselves are not usually a problem, but a sudden increase in the number, paired with flashes of light or a curtain over the field of vision, should prompt immediate medical attention. A dilated eye exam is key to determining the difference between something benign and a more serious condition.
- Eyelid twitches, usually harmless, are often associated with fatigue, stress, anxiety, smoking or excessive caffeine and alcohol intake. Avoiding these triggers may help resolve twitches.
- Other remedies for twitches include cold packs over the affected eye or temporary use of an antihistamine.
- If twitching involves other facial muscles, further evaluation is needed.
5. BECOMING VOCAL ABOUT THE SILENT KILLER
High blood pressure, known as a “silent killer,” effects about 75 million American adults, 29 percent of the population. That’s right, one of every three adults has high blood pressure. Only about half (54 percent) of people with high blood pressure have their condition under control.
Ezemenari Obasi, director of the HEALTH Research Institute at UH and associate dean at the College of Education, encourages an annual blood pressure screening. People more at risk based on family history and other health concerns should get checked more often. Left untreated, the damage that high blood pressure does to your circulatory system is a significant contributing factor to heart attack, stroke and other health threats.
To keep blood pressure in the healthy range, Obasi offers several tips:
- Eat a healthy diet low in salt, total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol and rich in fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Take at least one brisk 10-minute walk three times a day, five days a week.
- Do activities to reduce stress, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, yoga or mindfulness.
- Don’t smoke.
UH Libraries offers additonal tips on increasing your health literacy.