Let’s start this article with a public service announcement: If you’re experiencing long-term and/or painful symptoms, especially related to breathing, your first call should be a medical professional. However, when it comes to less urgent health problems, most of us with access to smartphones are probably more likely to start with Google. A study conducted in 2018 by Medicare Health Plans used Google Trends to find out which symptoms people in each state were looking up most often. Here are the top five most common and/or strangest concerns — with advice on what to do next if you were one of those worried Googlers.
One of the best-known signs of early pregnancy, morning sickness seems to be a particular concern for people in Arizona and Utah, but it’s pretty common everywhere. “Approximately two-thirds of women experience morning sickness, which is nausea or vomiting during the first trimester of pregnancy,” explains family medicine practitioner Dr. Fatima Hussain, MD. But the name is slightly misleading, says Dr. Honore Lansen, MD, a family practitioner at One Medical: “Morning sickness is an annoying misnomer since it can happen at any time of day and can range from unpleasant to incapacitating. While it’s most common in the first trimester and occurs as a result of fluctuating hormone levels, some parents-to-be are unfortunate enough to experience it throughout pregnancy. In that latter case, it’s usually considered a severe version that we call hyperemesis gravidarum, and medication options are available.” If you recognize that Latin name (and not because you’ve had it yourself) it might be because the Duchess of Cambridge famously suffered from this condition through all three of her pregnancies.
For the more common version that subsides after the first trimester, Dr. Lansen says the most helpful intervention is “being mindful — taking it easy and slowing down.” She adds, “It can be tempting to continue your usual routine at your usual pace. But slowing down a little, at least enough to listen to your body’s cues, can help to prevent a sudden bout of nausea. Eating smaller meals more frequently and slower than usual can help aid digestion. Acupuncture, vitamin B6, and ginger in moderate amounts have also been shown to help prevent and treat nausea in pregnancy.” That being said, she says, “Of course, before starting any supplement, it’s important to discuss with your healthcare provider.”
California is famous for its sunshine, so maybe it’s not surprising that Googlers there are concerned with sweat. But excessively sweaty palms might have less to do with the weather and more to do with your body. “Hyperhidrosis occurs when you sweat more than normal, for no reason, even when it’s cold,” says Dr. Janette Nesheiwat, MD, family and emergency physician. “Normally the eccrine sweat glands on our bodies are activated and cause us to sweat when we’re exercising, or in hot weather, or when under stress. For some people, these sweat glands are always activated.” Although annoying, she says, hyperhidrosis is not usually harmful.
For people who are worried about excess sweat, Dr. Lansen suggests a medical consultation to find out if it’s hyperhidrosis. On a day-to-day basis, she says, “Applying baby powder or cornstarch before heading out the door or into a meeting can be helpful. Keeping tissues on hand is good for a quick blot. And alcohol-based hand sanitizer is great in a pinch, as alcohol has a drying effect.” In the long term, she says, “Treatment options range from prescription-strength topical antiperspirants to Botox injections into the palm.” So no, you don’t have to sweat it forever.
Seven states were most concerned with issues relating to that horrible blocked up feeling in your nose and throat, which users varyingly called nasal congestion, stuffed or stuffy nose, phlegm and, in Vermont, sniffles. The popularity of this complaint isn’t surprising when you think about how many things can cause it. Dr. Michael Nusbaum, a physician, and surgeon in New Jersey, explains, “Nasal congestion can be caused by colds, infection, allergies, or reflux. The cause of your symptoms will determine the best treatment plan. If it is due to a cold, there are many over-the-counter medications to reduce or improve nasal congestion. If it is due to an infection, it is best to seek medical advice and see an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. They will most likely give you antibiotics to treat the infection. If the congestion is due to reflux, commonly called silent reflux, then acid-reducing medications like omeprazole and seeing a reflux specialist is the best course of action.”
If it’s allergies that have you constantly sniffing and sneezing, Dr. Lansen recommends some over-the-counter solutions. “I frequently recommend using a nasal steroid, such as fluticasone. They’re extremely effective at reducing inflammation in the nasal passages within a day or two. And unlike decongestant nasal sprays, they’re safe to use.” If you don’t want medication, she suggests nasal irrigation. She recommends boiling the water you’ll be using for five minutes first, then letting it cool to a usable temperature. “For maximum efficacy you can do nasal irrigation first, followed by a nasal steroid. Just don’t do it in the reverse order, because you’ll wash out the medication,” she says.
DARK GREEN STOOL
Okay, you might want to skip this one if you’re eating lunch. It seems that folks in South Carolina are concerned over the color of their poop. But Dr. Nusbaum says that dark green could actually be a good color to see. “Green stool may actually be a sign of a healthy diet,” he reassures us. “A diet filled with leafy green vegetables can cause the stool to be pigmented with chlorophyll.” South Carolinians were right to be taking notes, he says, but it’s other colors that he’s more concerned about. “Black or tarry stool usually contains old blood from the stomach or just after the stomach. Bright red blood can be from hemorrhoids or from bleeding in your colon. Gray could mean a biliary obstruction or a problem with your liver. These would all necessitate seeing your doctor as soon as possible, so looking into the toilet to see what you left behind may actually save your life.”
Coming out top in 10 states, the most commonly searched-for symptom was stress. However, Dr. Kevin Gilliland, executive director of outpatient treatment groupInnovation360 and a licensed clinical psychologist, says that not all stress is bad for your health. “Stress is actually a normal part of life,” he says. “Worry, anxiety, and fear, on the other hand, are what we struggle with when stress spills over. It’s the dose that gives us humans trouble. A lot like other things, the right amount of stress helps us perform, but too much and it becomes toxic to our bodies.”
It’s not just your mental health that can suffer: Dr. Nusbaum points out a number of physical symptoms that can be caused and exacerbated by stress, including a weakened immune system, depression, heartburn (since “stress causes an increase in stomach acid production”), high blood pressure (which can cause headaches), and insomnia (“which leads to a host of problems”).
If the pressure you’re under at work and/or home is getting too much, both Dr. Nusbaum and Dr. Gilliland recommend taking stock of what’s causing it. “Eliminate the sources of stress,” Dr. Nusbaum says. “If people are the cause, then put distance between you [and them] until you’re in a better place. If you can get them out of your life, then do so! Also, find ways to relax. Meditation, yoga, and personal spa days all help to get your stress levels down.” If this is more than a temporary situation and not easily fixed, a licensed mental health professional can give you a new perspective on your situation and help you with coping mechanisms. Google can get you so far, but humans are usually better.
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