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. Excessive Sweating
Likely causes: Vigorous exercise; hot weather; spicy food; conditions including anxiety, menopause, certain cancers, diabetes, chronic alcohol abuse; taking medications to treat Alzheimer’s disease, depression and pain. Regular clothing-drenching, can’t-grip-the-steering-wheel problems often result from hyperhidrosis, when misfiring sympathetic nerves overstimulate sweat glands.
DIY treatments: Wear loose-fitting, cotton clothing and sandals or “breathable” shoes made of leather and other natural materials; apply over-the-counter Odaban, CertainDri or Maxim (specifically formulated for hyperhidrosis) to underarms and palms after towel-drying; try relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation to help control stress that triggers over-perspiration.
What a doctor may do: Check for possible underlying causes, such as infections, thyroid problems, malignancies or hot flashes. Approved treatments include Botox injections, surgery to remove sweat glands, or a low-intensity electric current to hands and feet while immersed in an electrolyte solution.
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.
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.
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.