Many aches and pains can be simply treated at home without the need to consult a doctor. This page provides some useful information about these common problems. Click on a topic to read more.
The anatomy of the spine is very complex and has to support the whole weight of your body. It is therefore not surprising that poor posture, bad lifting habits, obesity and so on, can put strain on your back muscles and cause pain.
Common backache can be eased by taking pain killers and gentle exercise. The old fashioned remedy of taking to your bed and not moving can actually make the pain worse.
To avoid back pain, you must reduce excess stresses and strains on your back and ensure that your back is strong and supple. If you have persistent, recurring bouts of back pain, the following advice may be useful:
- Lose any excess weight
- Practise the Alexander technique.
- Wear flat shoes with cushioned soles, as these can reduce the stress on your back.
- Avoid sudden movements or muscle strain.
- Try and reduce any stress, anxiety and tension.
If the pain persists for more than a few days, or spreads to the legs (sciatica) consult your Doctor.
Burns & Scalds
An external burn is damage to the skin’s tissues. Burns can be vary painful, and can cause:
- redness on the skin,
- blisters (pockets of fluid that form on the skin), or
- charred (black) skin.
Burns can be caused by:
- direct contact with something hot, such as fire,
- radiated heat from an external source, such as the sun,
- certain chemicals,
- electricity, or
- friction (when an object or surface rubs against something else).
A scald is a burn that is caused by hot liquid or steam. Scalds are managed in the same way as burns.
First aid for burns
First aid advice for burns and scalds caused by heat, such as flames, is outlined below.
- Stop the burning process as soon as possible. This may mean removing the person from the area, dousing flames with water or smothering flames with a blanket. Do not put yourself at risk of getting burnt as well.
- Remove any clothing or jewellery near the burnt area of skin, but do not attempt to remove anything that is stuck to the burnt skin because this could cause more damage.
- Cool the burn with cool or tepid (lukewarm) water for 10-30 minutes, ideally within 20 minutes of the injury occurring. Never use ice, iced water or any creams or greasy substances, such as butter.
- Make sure that the person keeps warm, using a blanket or layers of clothing (avoiding the injured area). This is to prevent hypothermia occurring, when a person’s body temperature drops below 35°C (95°F). This is a risk if you are cooling a large burnt area, particularly in children and the elderly.
- Cover the burn with cling film in a layer over the burn, rather than by wrapping it around a limb. A clean, clear plastic bag can be used for burns on your hand.
- The pain from a burn can be treated with paracetamol or ibuprofen. Always check the manufacturer’s instructions when using over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Children under 16 years of age should not be given aspirin.
Once you have taken these steps, you will need to decide whether further medical treatment is necessary. See NHS Choices for more details for advice about what to do next.
Colds & Flu
Most adults will get at least one cold each year and children may get several. Colds usually start to improve after 5-7 days in adults but can last longer in children. Symptoms include fever, headache, runny nose, sore throat and cough. It is caused by a virus infection and antibiotics have no effect on the course of the illness. Simple painkillers, decongestants and rest will help ease the symptoms.
Occasionally complications such as severe earache, tonsillitis or chest infection may develop. These may require treatment from your doctor.
The term ‘flu’ is over-used. It should refer to the specific infection influenza. This occurs in epidemics every few years and is a particular risk for the elderly or patients with chronic heart or lung problems. These patients should request flu vaccinations in October each year.
Chickenpox is a mild but highly infectious condition caused by a virus called the varicella-zoster virus (varicella is the medical name for chickenpox). It causes an itchy rash that blisters and then crusts over. There is no cure for chickenpox, and the virus usually clears up by itself without any treatment. However, there are some steps you can take to ease the symptoms. Children usually do not need to consult a Doctor.
Itching may be eased a little by calamine lotion and cool baths.
The most infectious period is from 2 or 3 days before the rash appears until the last spots have scabbed over. Children may then return to school.
Chicken pox in adults however, can be a more serious infection.
Minor Cuts & Grazes
Cuts and grazes are some of the most common injuries.
Minor cuts and grazes (where only the surface layer of skin is cut or scraped off) may bleed and feel slightly painful, but the affected area will normally scab over and heal quickly.
However, if the cut is in an area that is constantly moving, such as your knee joint, it may take longer to heal.
Depending on how deep the cut is and where it is on your body, a scar may remain once the cut has healed.
Deeper cuts may damage important structures below the skin, such as nerves, blood vessels or tendons (see Complications). Grazes that remove the deeper layers of skin are rare.
Most cuts and grazes can be easily treated at home. More severe cases may need medical attention, such as stitches to close the wound.
For most cuts and grazes, cleaning them thoroughly and covering them with a plaster or dressing is all that is needed.
Stopping the bleeding
If your cut or graze is bleeding heavily, or is on a particularly delicate area of your body, such as the palm of your hand, you should stop the bleeding before applying any kind of dressing.
Apply pressure to the area using a bandage or a towel. If the cut is to your hand or arm, raise it above your head. If the injury is to a lower limb, lie down and raise the affected area above the level of your heart so the bleeding slows down and stops.
To dress a cut or graze at home:
- wash and dry your hands thoroughly
- clean the wound under running tap water, but do not use antiseptic because it may damage the tissue and slow down healing
- pat the area dry with a clean towel
- apply a sterile, adhesive dressing, such as a plaster
Keep the dressing clean by changing it as often as necessary and keep the wound dry by using waterproof dressings, which allow light wetting (showering).
The wound should heal by itself in a few days. If the wound is painful, you can take painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. However, you should not take ibuprofen if you have certain conditions, such as a stomach ulcer or asthma, and children under the age of 16 should not take aspirin. When taking medication, always check the packaging for recommendations regarding use and dose.
If you are unsure how serious your injury is, or if it has not healed after a few days, see your GP. Always seek medical advice if:
- your injury does not stop bleeding or is on a joint crease (go straight to an accident and emergency department if this is the case)
- your injury is very large or very deep
- your injury was caused by a bite
- there is something in your cut or graze, such as grit
Diarrhoea & Vomiting
There are two common causes for this illness – food poisoning and viral infections which can be passed from person to person and are very infectious. Careful hand washing will reduce the risk of transmission. In the majority of cases the illness will settle by itself within 2-3 days.
It is very important to replace lost fluid, initially with small frequent sips of clear fluid. An oral rehydration solution e.g. Dioralyte may be useful and can be brought from the chemist.
Babies are at most risk from dehydration and you should seek advise from your Doctor if vomiting continues for more than 24 hours.
This is a common condition and usually presents as an itchy scalp. Treatment shampoos and lotions can be bought from the chemist. Non chemical methods of control (wet combing) are also available. Your pharmacist or practice nurse can advise and teach you how to do this.
Don’t worry, headlice are not a reflection of your personal hygiene, they prefer a clean head!
Nosebleeds are fairly common, particularly in children, and can usually be easily treated at home. The medical name for a nosebleed is epistaxis.
How do nosebleeds occur?
The inside of the nose is full of tiny blood vessels which can start bleeding if they are disturbed. This usually happens as the result of a minor injury that is caused by picking, or blowing, your nose.
Nosebleeds can also occur if the mucous membrane (the moist lining) inside the nose dries out and becomes crusty. This can be the result of an infection, cold weather, or the drying effect of central heating. The mucous membrane becomes inflamed (red and swollen) or cracked (the skin splits open) making it more likely to bleed, particularly if picked, or disturbed by a minor bump.
Sit in a chair (leaning forward with your mouth open) and pinch your nose just below the bone for approximately 10 minutes, by which time the bleeding should have stopped. Try to avoid blowing your nose as you may dislodge the clot and cause further bleeding.
Sprains and strains are a very common type of injury that affect the muscles and ligaments. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue around joints that connect one bone to another. They help to keep the bones together and stable.
Symptoms of sprains and strains include:
- swelling and inflammation
- loss of movement in the affected body part
The treatment for sprains is R.I.C.E – Rest, Ice (e.g. frozen peas), Compression (Crepe bandage) and Elevation.
Pain killers (e.g. paracetamol) will help reduce the pain and swelling.
Stings & Insect Bites
Insect bites are puncture wounds that are caused by insects. In the UK, insects that bite include:
When an insect bites, it releases a form of saliva that can cause symptoms such as:
- inflammation (redness and swelling)
The symptoms of insect bites vary according to the type of insects involved and the sensitivity of the person who is bitten.
For example, a bite may result in a small, itchy lump that lasts for just a few hours, or it can lead to a more serious reaction, such as papular urticaria (where a number of itchy red lumps and blisters develop on the skin). See Insect bites – symptoms for more information.
Antihistamine tablets and 1% hydrocortisone cream can be obtained from the chemist without prescription and will usually relieve most symptoms.
Note: Bee stings should be scraped away rather than ‘plucked’ in order to avoid squeezing the contents of the venom sac into the wound.
Sunburn is skin damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight. With too much exposure to UV light, your skin overheats and becomes red and painful, and may later peel or blister.
When your skin is exposed to sunlight, it produces a pigment called melanin to help protect itself against the UV rays. This is what makes your skin go darker and is seen as a suntan.
Melanin stops you burning so easily but it doesn’t prevent the other harmful effects of UV, such as premature ageing and cancer.
If a baby or small child has been sunburnt, or if blisters or fever occurs, seek medical advice from your GP or an NHS walk-in centre, or by phoning NHS Direct on 0845 4647.
General advice for treating sunburn is as follows.
Staying out of the sun
Avoid direct sunlight by covering up and staying in the shade until the sunburn has healed.
Cool the skin by sponging it with lukewarm water or by having a cool shower or bath.
Drink plenty of fluids to replace the water lost through sweating in the sun, and to cool down. Do not drink alcohol, because it will dehydrate you further.
For mild sunburn, apply a moisturising lotion or a special aftersun cream from a pharmacy. Aftersun helps to cool the skin as well as moisturising and relieving the feeling of tightness. Calamine lotion can also be used to relieve itching and soreness.
For adults, painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can help relieve pain and reduce swelling.
Treating severe sunburn
Severe burns may require special burn cream and burn dressings. Ask your pharmacist for advice. You may need to see your GP and have your burns dressed by a practice nurse.
In severe cases, you may need treatment at your local accident and emergency department.