That headache? It’s bound to be a brain tumour. Lower back pain? Well it’s got to be kidney failure, hasn’t it? While a little concern could be essential for your survival, none of us enjoy sheer terror – so we’ve put together a health guide to help you work out whether your worrying is worthwhile…
Is it a beauty spot or skin cancer?
■ Your odds: Nearly all of us have moles and freckles and it’s important to keep an eye on them and to act early with concerns. Dermatologist Dr Julia Newton-Bishop says: “Melanoma is the most common cancer among women aged 30-39 and is exceeded only by breast cancer, with almost 2,000 deaths a year.”
If you insist on topping up your tan, choose your cream wisely. “Always pick your sun cream by SPF, which protects against UVB, but also opt for UVA protection, which also contributes to melanoma,” says Julia, who works at St James’s Hospital in Leeds.
And don’t think you’ve got to break the bank – Asda Sun System Protection Lotion SPF30 (£3.50 for 200ml) offers better protection than creams up to four times the cost, the Consumers’ Association found.
Apply liberally every two to three hours for maximum protection. “The best route is obviously to cover up and avoid the sun when it’s at its strongest, between 11am and 3pm,” says Julia.
■ When to worry: Look for any changes in moles – in colour, number, size or shape. They don’t happen overnight – they can occur over weeks or months. Julia says: “If you catch it early, while cancer is in the mole, there’s a 97% survival rate.”
Is it butterflies or IBS?
■ Your odds: While we’ve all suffered from nervousness, irritable bowel syndrome is a different matter altogether.
About one in five people in the UK suffers from stomach-crunching IBS at some stage in their life, with young adults and women hardest hit. And while few of us would book in to see our doc with a case of butterflies, it could well be a warning sign.
“There’s a strong link between IBS and stress,” explains Professor Robin Spiller, a gastroenterologist from the University of Nottingham. “Keep a diary to see if it’s a particular event or situation causing the discomfort,” he says.
The biggest trigger for IBS is food intolerance, most notably wheat, milk, cheese, citrus fruits and coffee. “Ease the strain on your digestive system with non-wheat fibre such as oats, pulses, fruit and veg – and do some light exercise such as walking every day,” says Prof Spiller. Or try peppermint oil capsules (£12.95 for 180, healthspan.co.uk ) which in tests helped almost 60% of sufferers.
■ When to worry: If you’re experiencing regular stomach cramps, bloating, bouts of heartburn, flatulence, constipation and diarrhoea.
“Even if it’s not IBS, if you suffer from any of these for more than 24 hours, your doctor should know about it,” Robin says.
Is it an itch or thrush?
■ Your odds: Three-quarters of us will get the fungal infection candida (known as thrush) at some point in our lives, so don’t rule it out. In fact, it’s always present in small quantities – it’s only when “overgrowth” occurs that you have to take action.
GP Dr Dreena Kelly says: “If it only lasts for a day or two, and there’s no thick, white discharge, it’s more likely to be an irritation caused by a new washing powder or soap.”
So ditch any smellies in favour of non-perfumed soaps, and switch to a non-bio powder. “
Thrush comes on because of hot or moist conditions, antibiotics or having sex with a partner who’s suffering,” says Dr Kelly. The good news? There are no long-term health risks and an over-the-counter anti-fungal cream such as Canesten (£4.49 for 20ml, chemistdirect.co.uk ) can clear it up in five or six days.
While you’re at it, use anti-fungal Canesfresh Feminine Wipes (£2.99 for 10, superdrug.com ), swap those poly-mix pants for breathable cotton ,and sort your itchy man out at the same time.
■ When to worry: If it doesn’t clear up with the cream, see your GP. “It could be another STI with similar symptoms but real health risks, such as scabies, eczema or a different fungal infection,” warns Dr Kelly.
Is it heartburn or heart attack?
■ Your odds: More than 20 million people suffer from indigestion every day, accounting for more than one in 20 visits to the GP. Don’t think that doesn’t mean your chest pains might not be signs of a dodgy ticker, though – 260,000 heart attacks were reported in the UK last year, 80% of which proved fatal.
Heartburn hits when the acidic contents of your stomach pass up into the gullet, causing a burning sensation. The first step is to eat smaller meals more often, to stop the build-up of acid in the stomach.
And if you smoke, don’t, as it reduces the strength of the valve which stops stomach acid flowing into your oesophagus.
For immediate relief, take an antacid such as Gaviscon Double Action Tablets (£3.15 for 16, boots.com ) and chew gum, which naturally stimulates neutralising saliva flow.
■ When to worry: Heart-related chest pain generally produces a feeling of pressure, accompanied by shortness of breath which radiates outwards towards the arms, shoulders and neck – gastrointestinal pain is unlikely to reach beyond the chest.
“If it lasts for more than 10 minutes, call 911, and even if it fades, contact your GP to get checked out,” Michael says.
Is it a headache or a brain tumour?
■ The odds: According to the Brain Tumour Charity, under one in 10,000 of us will develop a killer headache in our lifetimes. “Less than 1% of people who consult their GP about a headache actually have something seriously wrong with them,” says Dr Giles Elrington, a neurologist at the Barts and London NHS Trust and trustee of the London Migraine Clinic.
Until your doctor can diagnose the exact cause of your headaches, try a combination of Solpadeine and ibuprofen, shown in tests to provide the most effective over-the-counter pain relief (Solpadeine Max, £2.65 for 16, ibuprofen, 35p for 16 tablets, tesco.com ).
For a drug-free fix, try rolling on 4Head (£2.99, amazon.co.uk ), a menthol stick that alleviates over 80% of tension headaches naturally by cooling your temples.
■ When to worry: Symptoms you definitely shouldn’t ignore are regular, severe headaches that are worse in the morning then improve throughout the day, weakness, loss of balance, deafness, memory loss and mood swings.
Is it dehydration or diabetes?
■ Your odds: While your thirst could well be down to your new exercise regime, it could also be the dreaded D word. About 3.7 million people in the UK have diabetes, with estimates that this could reach 4.4 million by 2020 – so you’re right to be concerned.
“Diabetes occurs when the amount of glucose in the blood is too high because the body can’t use it properly,” explains Simon O’Neill from Diabetes UK. This unused glucose – or sugar – goes into urine, so sufferers need to pee almost constantly, and hence are constantly glugging liquids.
“In all cases, the symptoms are quickly relieved once the diabetes is treated,” Simon says.
■ When to worry: Signs include thirst, going to the toilet all the time, especially at night, extreme tiredness, weight loss, thrush and blurred vision. “Early treatment reduces chances of developing serious health problems, which can sometimes be fatal,” Simon says.