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9 Common Ailments That Drive You Crazy

How to manage leg cramps, dry eye, cold sores and more

Everyday Nuisances That Drive You Crazy

Ryan Snook

1. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

En español l What it is: Tingling, aching, pain or numbness on the thumb side of your hand that can stretch across your palm, through your fingers and even up your forearm. Carpal tunnel syndrome can make it painful to do anything that involves flexing your wrist, such as using a keyboard, holding a steering wheel or even grasping a bag.

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The reason: Tendons in the narrow part of your wrist (known as the carpal tunnel) swell, pinching the nerve that leads to your hand. A number of factors may contribute to this: normal aging, repetitive movements, hormonal changes and certain medical conditions like diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis.

The remedy: Use Advil, Aleve or another pain reliever to ease swelling and pain. If you work at a computer, take frequent breaks and rotate your wrists in both directions. If that doesn't help, a cortisone shot may provide temporary relief. In chronic cases, outpatient surgery to free the nerve is almost always successful, says Michelle G. Carlson, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.

2. Spider and Varicose Veins

What they are: Enlarged, ropy and often painful, varicose veins are found most often on the thighs, lower legs and calves. The thin, purplish-red jagged lines on the face and legs are spider veins.

The reason: Genetic roulette, exacerbated by pregnancy, menopause, obesity, injury, sun damage and age.

The remedy: "Walk, bike, swim — anything that boosts circulation may prevent them from getting worse," says Ellen Marmur, M.D. Avoid sitting or standing for long periods. Take frequent breaks with your feet elevated. Try support panty hose or compression stockings. To remove spider and small varicose veins, sclerotherapy or laser-assisted sclerotherapy is the gold standard. Both are simple, outpatient procedures, though you may need more than one treatment.

For serious varicose veins, talk to your doctor about endovenous ablation or radio-frequency ablation therapy. Less invasive than older vein-stripping procedures, these treatments are covered by insurance and do not require general anesthesia — good news for people with medical problems that put them at risk for surgery.

Everyday Nuisances That Drive You Crazy

Ryan Snook

3. Cold Sores

What they are: Small, painful blisters that usually occur on or around your lips.

The reason: Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus, which you can get by kissing or by sharing dishes, towels or utensils with someone who's infected. This is a variation of the same virus that causes genital herpes, though having one doesn't mean you'll get the other.

The remedy: Cold sores usually clear on their own after a week or two, but antiviral creams applied as soon as you feel a twinge or tingle can greatly speed healing. To numb the area during flare-ups, try ointments such as Abreva or Anbesol. Sucking on ice pops also offers relief. Since flare-ups can be triggered by sun exposure and stress, slather on sunscreen and lip balm (avoid mentholated products, since they're also irritating). If you're going through a stressful time or are plagued by frequent attacks, ask your doctor about taking antiviral medications to prevent outbreaks.

Everyday Nuisances That Drive You Crazy

Ryan Snook

4. Leg Cramps

What they are: Sudden muscle contractions in your leg or foot that last from a few seconds to a few minutes. The cramps often happen at night, causing you to wake in excruciating pain.

The reason: No one knows exactly what causes cramps in otherwise healthy adults, but certain risk factors may make older people more susceptible. These include deficiencies in key minerals, lack of hydration, poor muscle conditioning and certain medications.

The remedy: Stretching and massage to loosen your muscles may help prevent a cramp and provide relief if you're having one. Applying a hot washcloth can also calm the muscle. Studies have linked leg cramps to low levels of potassium, calcium and magnesium. So make sure your diet includes bananas, oranges, brown rice, almonds, avocados and spinach, which contain these nutrients. Staying hydrated and wearing comfortable shoes can help, too. If you take a diuretic for hypertension or statins for high blood cholesterol, ask your doctor about possible alternatives.

5. Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)

What it is: A neurological condition that triggers an unbearable urge to move the legs. Symptoms — not quite pain but severe discomfort, pinching or pulling that's only partially relieved by movement — usually strike most when you're lying down, often interfering with sleep.

The reason: Nobody knows the cause, though heredity plays a role, as does a drop in iron levels and the level of dopamine in the brain. Certain medications, including antidepressants and antihistamines, can trigger symptoms — even if you've been taking them for some time with no ill effects. Some chronic diseases, like diabetes and peripheral neuropathy, also can play a role.

The remedy: If you suspect a medication may be to blame, talk to your doctor about switching drugs. For mild RLS, over-the-counter pain relievers can help. So can lifestyle changes such as gentle exercise, hot baths or yoga stretches before bed. Medications that treat Parkinson's or sleep disorders sometimes provide relief, although it can take time and patience to find the one that works for you.

Everyday Nuisances That Drive You Crazy

Ryan Snook

6. Smelly Feet

What it is: Exactly what you think.

The reason: Feet have many thousands of sweat glands, and footwear provides the perfect breeding ground for odor-causing bacteria.

The remedy: Air out your shoes 24 hours between wearings. Wash and dry your feet daily. Look for mesh athletic shoes, which provide good ventilation. For leather shoes, dab antiperspirant deodorant on your feet or spray it into shoes. A spritz of a disinfectant spray — or a sprinkle of cornstarch or antifungal/antibacterial powder — may also do the trick. In extreme cases, some doctors recommend Botox injections, which temporarily halt the function of the sweat glands, says Cleveland Clinic podiatrist Georgeanne Botek, D.P.M.

Everyday Nuisances That Drive You Crazy

Ryan Snook

7. Dry Eye

What it is: Gritty, tired and painful eyes that make it hard to read, work at the computer, watch television or drive. Symptoms typically worsen throughout the day. To compensate for lost moisture, the body may, paradoxically, produce excess tears.

The reason: Key culprits include aging; contact lenses; diabetes and thyroid disease; medications for colds, coughs and depression; and, in some cases, LASIK surgery.

The remedy: Apply warm compresses. Turn off fans and turn on a humidifier. Outside, wear wraparound glasses or eyeglass shields. You may want to try over-the-counter artificial tears, gels or ointments, but avoid products that "get the red out," since these are decongestants and will make dry eye worse. Oral or topical antibiotics may also offer help.

8. Urinary Incontinence

What it is: If a few drops or a squirt of urine leaks out when you cough, laugh or exercise, you could have stress incontinence. A strong, sudden gush may signal urge incontinence, or overactive bladder.

The reason: Stress incontinence is usually caused by weakened tissue and muscles, an infection, a hernia, prostate problems or obesity. Some drugs — including diuretics, antidepressants, blood pressure medications and even over-the-counter cold and cough remedies — are also possible culprits. Urge incontinence may be caused by prostate problems, nerve damage due to stroke, or illnesses such as diabetes.

The remedy: "Urinary incontinence may be common in older people, but it's not a normal, inevitable part of aging," says Anthony G. Visco, M.D., chief of the division of urogynecology and reconstructive pelvic surgery at Duke University. "You don't have to live with it." For urge incontinence, prescription medications — Oxytrol, Ditropan and Detrol — have been the treatment of choice, but a recent study found that a onetime Botox injection in the bladder can be at least as effective. If you have stress incontinence, some simple lifestyle changes could make a huge difference. Limit fluids and gradually retrain your bladder to go every three to four hours. Eliminate coffee, tea, spicy foods, chocolate, alcohol and citrus fruits. You can strengthen pelvic-floor muscles by doing Kegel exercises. Losing weight and avoiding constipation (by using dietary fiber or a stool softener) can help, too. If nothing else works, some women find relief through sling surgery, an outpatient procedure in which doctors create a kind of sling that supports the bladder and urethra, thereby reducing the problem.

Everyday Nuisances That Drive You Crazy

Ryan Snook

9. Nail Fungus

What it is: An infection that appears as yellow or white spots on your nail. As the fungus spreads, the nail can thicken and even pull away from its bed.

The reason: Fungus thrives in dark, warm, moist conditions — so you get it from closed, tight shoes, wet floors in showers or gym locker rooms, or unsterilized tools at the nail salon.

The remedy: Wear sandals or shoes at the pool or gym. Avoid cotton or wool socks; instead choose synthetics, which don't hold moisture. Dust your feet with antifungal powder after a bath or shower, and before bed. If you get professional pedicures, bring your own tools to the nail salon, or make sure the salon sterilizes theirs. For treatment, ask your doctor about prescribing Lamisil, an oral medication, or Penlac, a clear nail polish. Another new option is photodynamic therapy, which uses drugs and a special light to zap the fungus.

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