Before rushing to the doctor at first sign of illness or injury, try treating ailments at home

By Ashley Dickson

You’ve been battling a fever, sore throat and body aches for days, and the end doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight. It’s time to get help. Do you head to the local pharmacy to wade through over-the-counter medications? Should you make an appointment to be diagnosed by a physician? Or is the emergency room your best bet for immediate care?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a correct answer — different symptoms and circumstances call for different diagnoses and treatments. There are, however, guidelines to help you avoid unnecessary drugstore purchases or visits to the hospital or doctor’s office.


Spot the symptoms

Start by thinking specifically about the pain you’re feeling. Make a list of your symptoms, including those that seem insignificant. Whether it’s a runny nose, stomachache or back pain, each symptom is a clue that will help you or your physician diagnose the problem.

Once you’ve listed your symptoms, think about what might be causing them. A swollen finger can be traced back to the fly ball you caught at yesterday’s baseball game, or a co-worker’s strep might be a hint to your fever or sore throat.


Investigate the illness

If the symptoms aren’t serious enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room (see sidebar), research which treatment option is best — a home remedy, drug-store cure or prescription from a physician.

Many doctors recommend using the Internet and other forms of literature. Web sites like www.WebMD.com and www.ihc.org contain valuable health information, complete with “symptom checker” programs that offer possible diagnoses.

Dr. Robert Slack, a family practice physician with Intermountain Healthcare, says trips to the doctor can often be avoided with a little research.

“WebMD does a good job educating the public,” he says. “When you plug in your symptoms, you learn how likely it is that you have something that needs to be treated by a physician. Most of the time the answer is no.”

The key to effective research is using dependable resources. Dr. Slack says one of the biggest challenges is getting unbiased advice. Many information sources are funded by drug companies or groups interested in making a profit.

“When you go to a Web site, you don’t know who’s putting the information there,” says Dr. Craig Patten, emergency room physician and chairman of the emergency department at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center. “It never hurts to educate yourself, but the Internet is not infallible.”

After research, practice a little patience before making an appointment with the doctor. When it comes to bronchitis, colds and flu, wait 10 to 14 days before calling a physician. It’s normal for symptoms of viral infections to last up to 14 days, and for most people, the worst is over in about 10 days. Patience is also key when it comes to back pain, stomachaches and minor injuries.

Alleviate the ailment

If you’re experiencing a viral infection or chest cold, you can treat the symptoms at home. Rest is one of the best remedies. A day home from work or school may ease pain and speed up recovery. Drinking fluids thins mucus and eases coughs, stuffy noses and sore throats. Over-the-counter medications won’t help you get better faster, but they may relieve symptoms and let you rest easier. For pain or fever, try acetaminophen (like Tylenol) or ibuprofen (like Advil or Motrin). Use lozenges, cough drops or salt water for gargling when a sore throat is the culprit. Try a decongestant for a stuffy nose or an antihistamine for a runny nose.

Back pain is the second leading reason people visit their doctors, but many pain episodes don’t require a doctor’s care.

“People get worried if they have numbness and tingling in their backs, but if it’s just pain, you’re usually fine to wait it out,” Dr. Slack says. “If it gets worse after three to five days, come in to the doctor.”

To treat back pain, try heat to loosen tight muscles or ice to lessen the pain. For most types of back pain, inactivity is damaging, so keep moving. Simple pain medications (ibuprofen and naproxen) reduce inflammation.

When it comes to injuries, see a doctor if you’re certain the bone is fractured or broken. Otherwise, rest overnight to see if symptoms improve.

“For any acute injury, if you treat it with RICE — rest, ice, compression, elevation — odds are pretty good it will heal by itself,” Dr. Slack says. “There is a two- to three-day window where an injury will stay bruised, but then you’ll know if it was broken or if it’s started to heal.”


The doctor will see you now

If you’ve established your symptoms, done some research and attempted unsuccessfully to remedy the self-diagnosed illness, there’s no harm in seeing a physician.

“There definitely are things that need to be seen by a doctor,” Dr. Patten says. “If you are in a lot of pain that you can’t get under control, or if you seem to be getting sicker and sicker, it’s appropriate to go to the doctor.”

Dr. Slack says physicians understand they’re in business to listen to people and figure out how to help.

“At the end of the day, it’s about taking care of the patients,” he says.


   Use good judgment before taking a trip to the emergency room. Here are situations that require immediate care.

• Loss of consciousness

• Chest pains or signs of a heart attack (pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest; tightness, burning or aching under the breastbone; chest pain with lightheadedness)

• Signs of a stroke (sudden weakness or numbness of the face, arm or leg on one side of the body; sudden dimness or loss of vision, particularly in one eye; loss of speech or trouble talking or understanding; sudden, severe headaches with no known cause; unexplained dizziness, unsteadiness or sudden falls)

• Bleeding that does not stop after 10 minutes of direct pressure

• Suicidal or homicidal feelings

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