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9 Embarrassing Health Conditions

Don't suffer from unflattering smells, sounds or, well, you get it. Solutions are available

health condition embarrassing odor body halitosis impotence flatulence gas patient on doctor table exam room

Have an embarrassing health condition? Don't suffer in silence. — Corbis

En español l Some bodily changes can be seen as badges of honor: knees that turned arthritic from scoring winning touchdowns in high school. Once model-like figures lost — but worth it — from birthing amazing offspring. Gray hairs proudly "earned" from a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice.

But unflattering smells, sounds, leaks and other unwelcome episodes common after age 50 share one identical symptom: such embarrassment that two of three patients would rather suffer in silence than discuss the condition with their doctor, say researchers. Even before the Internet allowed for anonymous access to answers, surveys indicated that embarrassing ailments were the top reason why Americans didn't get a medical exam when they knew they should.

The problem is, remaining mum about problems can affect your overall health.

"Most embarrassing symptoms can be treated — often easily," says Donnica Moore, M.D., of the Sapphire Women's Health Group in New Jersey and author of Women's Health for Life. "But sometimes they indicate a bigger problem."

1. Bad Breath

Likely causes: Dry mouth, which can be caused by many medications, including those used to treat depression, high blood pressure, urinary incontinence, allergies and Parkinson's disease; eating sulfur-containing foods such as onions and garlic; gum disease and cavities; smoking or drinking coffee. But the top cause is poor dental hygiene — and interestingly, daily flossing to remove odor-causing trapped food ranks highest as the health habit "patients are most likely to skip or overestimate doing," notes Moore.

Do it Yourself (DIY) treatments: Combat dry mouth by drinking more water, eating saliva-inducing apples and celery, and chewing gum. Avoid toothpastes that contain the compound sodium lauryl sulfate. Along with brushing and flossing, eating probiotic-containing yogurt or supplements may control oral bacteria.

What a doctor may do: Search for a cause, because bad breath can indicate respiratory infection, sinusitis, bronchitis, diabetes, and gastrointestinal or kidney problems.

Noteworthy: Some studies have found brushing your tongue (not just your teeth) reduced "bad breath measurements" up to 70 percent, reports the American Dental Association.

2. Constipation

Likely causes: Inadequate fluids or exercise, stress, medications for depression and high blood pressure — or just being female. “A woman’s wider and flatter pelvic muscles weaken with age, causing the sigmoid colon to drop, which makes the large intestines work harder to move things through,” says gastroenterologist David T. Rubin, M.D., of the University of Chicago Medicine.

DIY treatments: Milk of magnesia or “gentle” laxatives such as MiraLAX or GlycoLax as needed (but avoid “stimulant” laxatives). Exercise at least 30 minutes a day. Coffee can also help.

What a doctor may do: If the problem is ongoing with little improvement, test for low thyroid, colon cancer, diverticulosis or other GI problems; review current medications that may cause problems — or prescribe one to relieve them.

Noteworthy: A high-fiber diet has long been recommended to help prevent constipation, “but recent studies indicate fiber doesn’t treat constipation,” says Rubin — and some research even finds that unknown-caused constipation may improve by reducing dietary fiber intake.

3. Flatulence

Likely causes: Swallowing air when you smoke, eat or talk; snoring and sleep disorders; eating dairy, legumes — such as lentils and beans — or foods and drinks high in sugar and soy; use of antibiotics and other medications.

DIY treatments: Eat more slowly. Take activated charcoal or other over-the-counter products containing simethicone; Beano, an over-the-counter product containing enzymes; or lactase supplements before a meal. Avoid excessive consumption of problem foods and sugary products.

What a doctor may do: Test for lactose intolerance, bacterial overgrowth or irritable bowel syndrome.

Noteworthy: Most people pass gas up to 21 times a day. Foul odors usually result from sulfur, so to protect those around you, limit sulfur-containing foods such as meat, eggs and cauliflower.

4. Rectal Itch

Likely causes: Poor wiping, which can occur with aging-related physical impairment; prolapsed rectum; pinworms; anal warts sometimes caused by human papillomavirus (HPV); psoriasis; hemorrhoids; dyes or other agents in toilet paper.

DIY treatments: Wipe with unscented baby wipes rather than toilet paper — "and keep them in the refrigerator" for a cooling effect, suggests Rubin. (Just don't flush them down the toilet, unless you really miss seeing your plumber.) Apply diaper rash ointment or antifungal powders sold for vaginal infections before bedtime.

What a doctor may do: Check for diabetes or other possible causes of a yeast infection in the anus, and underlying colorectal conditions.

Noteworthy: Don't use a washcloth on an itchy bottom, warns Rubin. It's too irritating — and worsens itching. To check for pinworms — microscopic parasites in contaminated food that mature in intestines — place a piece of tape over your rectum at night and check for worms on the tape in the morning.

5. Smelly Feet

Likely causes: Hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating), wearing socks or shoes made of certain synthetic materials, tight footwear.

DIY treatments: Apply an underarm antiperspirant on feet. Use a hair dryer (on a cool setting) between toes after showering. Change shoes when wet. Wear cotton or synthetic wick-away socks.

What a doctor may do: Examine for fungal or bacterial infection, anemia or thyroid problems; treat severe cases with Botox.

Noteworthy: Try this home remedy: Boil two to five black teabags in water and let cool. Soak feet for 20 minutes each day for a week. The tannic acid in tea helps dry feet and kill odor. If your shoes are smelly, spray them with Lysol or a similar product, air them out and don't wear them on consecutive days. (Or throw them away.)

6. Body Odor

Likely causes: Genetics, obesity, eating pungent foods that seep through skin during sweating, avoiding soap and water.

DIY treatments: Bathe daily to remove naturally occurring bacteria on skin that multiplies during sweating (sweat itself is virtually odorless). If you're obese or buxom, towel-dry or use a hair dryer in skin folds and under breasts. If commercial deodorants cause underarm irritation, use antibacterial "surgical scrub" soaps, available at pharmacies, or mix baby powder and baking soda for gentle but effective protection.

What a doctor may do: Check for diabetes; prescribe "medical-grade" antiperspirants if odor is caused by excessive sweating.

Noteworthy: Bathing more than twice daily, especially with hot water, dries skin and can increase B.O.

7. Vaginal Odor

Likely causes: Trapped moisture, yeast infection, chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases, thinning of the vaginal lining following menopause.

DIY treatments: Wear cotton underwear changed daily (and after exercise). Avoid pantyhose and douching. Use a home test to see whether the odor may be caused by a yeast infection. If so, treat with a cream or suppository. If you have more than four yeast infections a year, see your doctor to check for underlying causes.

What a doctor may do: Examine for conditions that need prescription antibiotics. In some cases, vaginal odor may indicate cervical cancer.

Noteworthy: Foods including garlic, onions and asparagus may cause vaginal odor, while "sweet-smelling" fruits such as pineapple may help prevent it.

8. Fecal Incontinence

Likely causes: Previous vaginal childbirth (especially with an episiotomy); inactivity; prolapsed rectum; a history of hemorrhoids or "pushing" during constipation; diabetes, multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer's disease.

DIY treatments: Kegel exercises done frequently throughout the day, in which you squeeze — for 10 seconds — as if to stop urination or a bowel movement. Increase fiber intake to 20 to 30 grams daily. Avoid dairy, caffeine, cured or smoked meats, alcohol and sweeteners in sugarless gum.

What a doctor may do: Examine for Crohn's disease, colon cancer or other GI diseases; recommend anti-diarrhea medications, pelvic floor exercises, surgery or biofeedback techniques to help control bodily processes that normally occur involuntarily.

Noteworthy: Loss of bowel control affects one in 12 Americans, and is most common after age 50, affecting 10 percent of women.

9. Urinary Incontinence

Likely causes: In women, weakened pelvic muscles (often resulting from past vaginal childbirth) or thinning of skin in the vagina or urethra following menopause. In men, an enlarged prostate or prostate surgery. In either, obesity, urinary tract infections, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease or multiple sclerosis.

DIY treatments: Avoid caffeine, smoking and spicy foods. Kegel exercises can improve the problem and prevent progression.

What a doctor may do: Prescribe medications or an implantable device for overactive bladder (the "gotta go" type), surgery for stress UI (when leakage results from coughing, laughing or lifting).

Noteworthy: Urinary incontinence steadily increases with age, affecting up to 84 percent of nursing home residents. At any age, women are afflicted twice as often as men.

Sid Kirchheimer writes about health and consumer issues.

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