7 Health Questions You're Too Embarrassed To Ask

7 Health Questions You're Too Embarrassed To Ask

Despite the popularity of shows like Embarrassing Bodies, many of us are still terrified at the thought of talking to our GPs about awkward health concerns. Whether you’re baffled by body odour or curious about how much discharge is normal, we asked the experts for solutions to some of the most Googled ‘embarrassing’ health problems…

1. Excessive Sweating

We all sweat, to a greater or lesser degree. Sweating is both normal and healthy – it’s the body’s way of regulating temperature. But if you find yourself sweating excessive amounts, you may be suffering from what’s known as hyperhidrosis, which can be a debilitating and depressing condition, explains Medical Director of London Doctors Clinic Dr Preethi Daniel: “If you sweat in a way that affects your daily life, either at work or in your relationships, and have episodes of this kind of sweating once a week or more, you may have hyperhidrosis.”
Who it can affect: Excessive sweating affects men and women equally, young and old, but there’s a genetic component to it, so there can be clusters in families.
What you can do: Try to wear loose-fitting, cotton clothing and remember relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation can help to control stress that triggers over-perspiration. Your GP can also prescribe you a strong antiperspirant, which works well for some people although it can irritate the skin and if the sweating is generalised, it won’t do much. A treatment called iontophoresis involving electric currents can help (it temporarily disrupts the sweat glands), although treatment needs to be carried out several times a week to see results. Botox can be a very effective treatment for the underarms – results can last from six to 18 months – although it’s not as successful on the hands, due to the way Botox also paralyses the muscles. 

2. Body Odour

“Body odour, also known as BO, is an unpleasant problem that can knock a person’s confidence and self-esteem,” explains Dr Daniel. However, despite what many people think, body odour doesn’t actually come from sweat – the unpleasant smell is actually caused by the bacteria that breaks the sweat down into aromatic fatty acids.

Who it can affect: “Everyone sweats,” says Dr Daniel. “But if you’re stressed, this can lead to body odour. Your body has two kinds of sweat glands – eccrine glands, which are located all over, and apocrine glands, located mainly in your armpits, which go into overdrive when you’re anxious. If you eat a lot of spicy food, as well as vegetables like garlic and onion, this can result in BO six to 12 hours later. If you’re overweight or take antidepressants you’re also more likely to get BO.”

What you can do: It may sound obvious but shower and dry your skin regularly (if you’re prone to sweat, two or three times a day is fine), use a deodorant with aluminium chloride and try to wear natural fibres such as cotton, wool and silk. If you’re at all concerned, speak to your GP.

3. Vaginal Discharge

We may be au fait when it comes to talking about our monthly cycle, but discharge – a perfectly healthy occurrence – gets little air time. “Vaginal discharge and cervical mucous sort of act like the oil between gears in a machine, keeping the vagina working properly, the normal pH balance of bacteria in a good place and helping to lubricate during intercourse,” says Dr Daniel.

What’s normal: Normal is around a tablespoon every 24 hours – it can be white, transparent, thick, thin and mostly odourless. However pregnancy, hormonal contraception, sex and even your diet can affect your discharge, meaning it can change throughout your cycle. Even stress can alter how much discharge you produce. For women who are menopausal, it’s not uncommon to have more or less discharge than normal due to changes in oestrogen levels.

What isn’t normal: Increased discharge with or without a smell can be a cause for concern. White, thick-ish discharge can signal a yeast infection (thrush), while thin, greenish, fishy smelling discharge usually indicates bacterial vaginosis. Although these two conditions are strictly not sexually transmitted, STIs can cause increased discharge or soreness down below. See your GP or nearest sexual health provider if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.

4. Smelly Feet

If you find yourself embarrassed taking your shoes off at a yoga class or when getting a pedicure, Podiatrist at Carnation Footcare, Michael Ratcliffe, has some advice to share.

What causes it: The most common causes of smelly feet are hygiene, hosiery and footwear. Poor foot hygiene i.e. not washing daily; socks or tights that aren’t changed daily; and footwear that is too tight coupled with increased sweating (from increased activity or excessive sweating) can quickly lead to smelly feet.

What you can do: Feet need not smell at all – wash your feet daily with a mild soap, especially after exercising, taking care to dry carefully between the toes. Also try to rotate your footwear daily so you aren’t putting your feet in damp shoes; when your shoes do smell, use insoles and change them frequently. In summer, it goes without saying you should wear open shoes, but ensuring they fit correctly is still crucial for preventing unnecessary sweat, which can lead to dampness and smell.

5. Uneven Breasts

According to French cosmetic surgeon Dr Foued Hamza, uneven breasts are more common than you think: “The breasts are never 100% symmetric and around three quarters of women suffer from significant breast asymmetry.”

What’s normal: It’s completely normal for the breasts not to be perfect symmetric – most women have different sized breasts, although the variation is often small enough that both breasts are the same cup size. Around a quarter of women have one cup size significantly bigger than the other.

What causes it: It can be a combination of genes, lifestyle and hormones. Other causes are weight loss, pregnancy and breast feeding. It has been reported asymmetry gets worse as breast sizes get larger. However, it’s a myth that the left breast is bigger as that’s where your heart is (hence an increased blood flow) – there’s no scientific data to back this up.

What you can do: If uneven breasts bother you, you can use ‘chicken fillet’ pads to fill out your bra. For a more long-term solution, Dr Hamza has found that fat transfer to the breast (fat can be taken from your bottom) produces great results as it’s more natural-looking than an implant.

6. Nervous Rashes

“Nervous rashes are characterised by blotchy redness of the skin accompanied by a sensation of warmth or burning of the face, neck and sometimes the chest,” says dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk. “Episodes are typically fleeting but can still be uncomfortable and embarrassing for sufferers nonetheless.”

What causes it: While often caused by stress, these rashes can also be triggered by overheating (due to exercise, for example), alcohol, caffeine and certain medications. In most cases, flushing is a benign phenomenon, meaning that there isn’t a serious underlying condition that needs to be identified and treated. Sometimes a medical concern may lead to flushing, such as the menopause or rosacea.
What you can do: Know your triggers – common ones include spicy and sour foods as well as sulphites, alcohol and food very hot in temperature. Also, sometimes even the anticipation of flushing can increase anxiety and cause the nervous rash to appear. Wherever possible, remove yourself from the situation as this can speed up resolution. If this is impractical and you find yourself in a vicious cycle, it is worth talking to your GP about techniques for recognising and reducing anxiety, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

7. Noisy Stomach

Does your tummy make noises even when you’re not hungry? If so, you’re not alone. “Known as borborygmi, this common condition is actually air and fluid moving around inside your stomach and intestines,” explains Dr Daniel.

What causes it: The causes of a noisy stomach aren’t fully known, although there are some theories. Complex grains such as oats and quinoa take longer to digest, creating more activity and therefore sound. Similarly, a high-sugar diet and high-fructose fruits can make the intestines active, creating noise in the process, while legumes, pulses, beans and cruciferous vegetables cause excess gas which will create noise.

What you can do: If you’re prone to tummy gurgles, try to avoid the foods mentioned above but also be mindful of when you’re eating – your body likes consistency so eating at odd times or an unbalanced meal high in sugar and fat can be a causative factor. Stick to healthy portion sizes and also try to avoid fizzy drinks, fatty and fried foods.

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