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9 Health Conditions You Shouldn’t Be Embarrassed About

What you need to know about hemorrhoids, incontinence, leaky bowels, body odor and other health issues you’re too shy to ask your doctor about


spinner image man thinking about embarassing health conditions like flatulence, body odor, and food problems
Photo Collage: AARP;(Source: Getty Images; Shutterstock)

Let’s be honest, there are certain things about our bodies that we’d just rather not talk about. Talking about bladder or bowel leaks, problems in the bedroom or foul body odors with your doctor can feel incredibly uncomfortable.

But you should do it anyway, says Louis Papa, M.D., a primary care physician and professor of clinical medicine at the University of Rochester.

The alternative — living with an embarrassing condition instead of getting it treated — is worse. It’s also important to talk to your doctor because embarrassing symptoms can sometimes indicate a more serious health issue.

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Whatever your concern, your doctor has probably seen it before and knows how to help, Papa says.

“It’s one of those things where a lot of times people wipe their brow and say phew,” after they finally share their concerns with their physician, he says.

Here are some of the symptoms that may seem embarrassing and what you should know about each:

1. Bowel leakage

Have you ever accidentally ended up with a little poop in your underwear when you thought you were passing gas? Talk about a cringe-worthy moment. But bowel leakage, or fecal incontinence, happens to almost everyone at some point or another.

No matter how mortifying it seems, you should talk to a health care provider if it’s happening frequently, because sometimes there is a neurological or anatomical cause such as a tumor.

You’re at higher risk of fecal incontinence as you get older because the muscles around your anus and pelvic floor don’t function as well, Papa says.

The problem is more common in women because childbirth can cause damage to the nerves and muscles in the pelvic region. About 1 in 5 women over age 45 experiences accidental bowel leakage, research shows.

What you can do: Eat more fiber or take a fiber supplement and avoid spicy, fatty or greasy foods and dairy products. Caffeine, alcohol and foods with artificial sweeteners can also make the problem worse. Wear a pad or panty liner in case of accidents.

What your doctor can do: Prescribe medication, physical therapy or exercises to strengthen pelvic floor muscles. Other treatments include injections of bulking agents, nerve stimulation, radiofrequency therapy or a balloon-like device that is inserted in the vagina to help keep the rectum closed. Surgery may be needed to correct rectal prolapse or sphincter damage.

2. Excessive sweating

If your palms are always sweaty or you get huge pit stains no matter what the weather, you may have a condition called hyperhidrosis, which is excessive perspiration.

Hyperhidrosis is usually not serious, but it should be checked out by a health care provider because it can sometimes be a sign of an underlying issue such as diabetes, a thyroid problem or liver or kidney disease, says John Wolf, M.D., professor of dermatology at the Baylor College of Medicine. Excessive sweating can also be a side effect of medication.

What you can try: Apply a clinical-grade antiperspirant at night, cut back on caffeine and spicy foods and wear breathable fabrics like cotton. Try meditation, yoga or therapy to reduce stress, since anxiety can overstimulate sweat glands. Sweat pads can protect clothing from pit stains.

What a doctor may do: Prescribe medication or a prescription antiperspirant. Other treatments include Botox injections or a procedure called iontophoresis that passes a weak electrical current through the skin. In severe cases, surgery can remove sweat glands. 

3. Body odor

Excessive sweating and body odor are closely linked, but you can have one without the other, Wolf says. Typically, the stink is caused when your sweat comes into contact with bacteria on your skin.

With body odor, you “often don’t know you have it until somebody tells you,” Wolf says. “If you think you have a problem, you may have to ask your spouse and friends.”

Certain medications and medical conditions such as diabetes, liver disease and hormone fluctuations can cause or contribute to body odor. 

What you can try: Shower at least once a day, using a soap labeled “antibacterial” to remove bacteria, particularly under the arms and in the groin area. Remove hair that can trap bacteria. Use clinical-grade antiperspirant and take other steps to control excessive sweating.

What a doctor may do: Check for underlying conditions that could be causing the problem. Treat excessive sweating with Botox injections, medication or other therapies.

4. Erectile dysfunction

As you get older, it’s normal for your erections to rise more slowly and be a little less firm. But if you often have difficulty maintaining an erection and it disrupts your sex life, you may have erectile dysfunction, says Karyn Eilber, M.D., a urologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Your risk of erectile dysfunction increases as you get older, with research showing it affects more than 40 percent of men over age 50 and 70 percent of men over age 70. (See 10 Top Sex Tips for People Age 50 and Older.)

You’re at higher risk if you have diabetes, obesity, heart disease or high cholesterol, because those conditions can cause vascular problems that contribute to ED. Erectile dysfunction is also a side effect of many medications.

Although erectile dysfunction drugs are highly effective, many men with the disorder are too embarrassed to seek treatment, Eilber says.

What you can do: Stop smoking. Get more exercise, make good food choices and shed some pounds if you’re overweight. Try not to stress about the problem, since that can make matters worse.

What your doctor can do: Check for underlying conditions that can contribute to erectile dysfunction and prescribe an oral medication such as Viagra, Stendra, Cialis or Levitra. Other treatments depending on the cause of your ED include talk therapy, testosterone replacement therapy or shockwave therapy. For serious cases, your doctor may recommend a penile implant.

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5. Bad breath

Like body odor, bad breath is a condition you might not realize that you have until someone tells you. And when that happens, it can be mortifying.

As many as half of all Americans have bad breath at some point or another, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The vast majority of bad breath cases – about 80 or 90 percent – are caused by bacteria in your mouth, says Maricelle Abayon, a general dentist at Eastman Institute for Oral Health at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Dry mouth, which is more common in older adults and often caused by medication, exacerbates bad breath because there is less saliva to wash bacteria away. (See 10 Ways to Deal With Dry Mouth.)

What you can do: Avoid garlic and raw onions. Brush your teeth at least twice a day, floss daily and scrape your tongue with a tongue scraper or gently with your toothbrush to remove bacteria. If you use a mouthwash, make sure it’s alcohol-free. Sugar-free gum and mints can help mask odor and relieve dry mouth.

What your doctor can do: Remove plaque and treat the tooth decay, gum disease and dental infections that are the most common causes of bad breath. If dental treatment doesn’t solve the problem, your dentist may refer you to a specialist to check for another underlying cause such as a gastrointestinal issue or respiratory infection.

6. Hemorrhoids

People don’t like to talk about them, but about half of all people age 50 and older have hemorrhoids, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Hemorrhoids are swollen veins in the rectum or around the anus. Symptoms include itching, irritation or pain in the area around your tush. You may also notice bleeding on toilet paper or in the toilet bowl.

You’re more likely to get hemorrhoids if you strain during bowel movements or sit on the toilet for long periods of time, says Ekta Gupta, M.D., a gastroenterologist and associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Chronic constipation, diarrhea and heavy lifting can also contribute.

Don’t assume rectal bleeding is due to hemorrhoids, Guptak advises. Bleeding can also be a sign of colorectal cancer, anal cancer and other diseases, so it’s important to get checked out by a doctor.

What you can do: Take a daily fiber supplement and eat more high-fiber foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. To ease symptoms, try over-the-counter hemorrhoid creams, hydrocortisone suppositories or witch hazel pads. Instead of dry toilet paper, use moist toilettes or wet toilet paper, but avoid alcohol-based or scented wipes. Soak two or three times a day in a warm bath for 10 to 15 minutes. Afterward, gently pat the area dry or blow dry with a hair dryer.

What your doctor can do: Rubber band ligation, which cuts off the blood supply to hemorrhoids, is a common treatment. Other options include injections, electrotherapy or laser therapy to shrink or destroy hemorrhoid tissue. For the most severe cases, surgery may be necessary.

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7. Flatulence

Farting might be embarrassing, but it’s a necessary bodily function, and everyone does it, Papa says. Studies show it’s normal to pass gas 14 to 25 times per day. Unfortunately, the amount of gas you pass tends to increase with age.

We all swallow air when we talk, eat and drink, and that’s one cause of flatulence. Gas is also created in your gut as it breaks down foods.

“Anyone who says they never pass gas is either dead or lying, because it has to go somewhere,” Papa says.

What you can do: Eat and drink slowly, and avoid chewing gum, which prompts you to swallow extra air. Track your intake of potentially gas-producing foods such as beans, cruciferous vegetables, dairy products and carbonated drinks to see which ones are your triggers. Over-the-counter remedies such as Beano, Gas-X and products with activated charcoal can sometimes be helpful, Papa says.

What your doctor can do: Evaluate you for digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease or lactose intolerance that can cause excessive flatulence and prescribe treatment if necessary. They can also check to see if gas is a side effect of any of your medications.

8. Bladder control problems

A quarter to a third of all men and women experience problems with urinary leakage. And problems with urinary frequency affect up to 30 percent of men and 40 percent of women, according to the Urology Care Foundation. Both problems are especially common among older adults. More than half of women over age 65 experience urinary incontinence but rarely discuss it with their doctor, according to a 2018 University of Michigan-AARP poll. Coughing, laughing and sneezing are common triggers. The problem often stems from damage caused by childbirth.

For men, an enlarged prostate, which affects about half of men age 51 to 60 and 90 percent of men over age 80, is frequently the culprit. If you have an enlarged prostate, you may notice it’s more difficult to start and stop your flow of urine and that you have the urge to pee more frequently.

What you can do: Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake and do Kegel exercises a few times a day to help control those gotta-go impulses. Scheduled bathroom trips, sometimes called “timed voiding,” can help train the bladder to hold urine for longer periods and reduce incontinence episodes. (See 9 Strategies to Stop Peeing So Much.)

What your doctor can do: Prescribe medication to weaken the urge to urinate. For women with urinary incontinence or frequency, nerve stimulation or Botox injections can be helpful. For men with an enlarged prostate, drugs can shrink it or relax the muscles around it to encourage flow. In addition, minimally invasive office procedures that use ultrasound, lasers or other techniques can help by destroying enlarged prostate tissue or widening the urethra. For severe cases in both men and women, surgery is another option.

9. Toenail fungus

Toenail fungus causes nails to discolor and thicken, sometimes destroying the nail and causing discomfort while walking. Because women are more likely to wear open-toed shoes, they tend to find toenail fungus especially embarrassing, Wolf says.

Older adults are more susceptible to the condition, which can be tough to treat. One study found more than a third of adults age 65 and older have some form of toenail fungus; Wolf says his experience indicates the number is even higher.

What you can do: Home remedies such as using Vicks VapoRub or vinegar are generally unproven. Doctors recommend keeping nails short and clean, wearing breathable shoes and seeking medical treatment as soon as you notice color changes in your nail.

What your doctor can do: Prescribe a topical antifungal agent, usually in the form of a medicated nail polish you paint on your nail. More serious cases require an oral medication. Laser treatments are also available, but data on their effectiveness is limited.

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