That bodily problem you’d rather not talk about—is it trying to tell you something?
Maybe you’ve stayed up late Googling a symptom you were too embarrassed to ask your doctor about. Be not ashamed— you’ve got company. None of our bodies are flawless, forever unsullied by any unwelcome or excessive leaks, fluids, blockages, growths, sounds or smells.
The physical phenomenon you’re secretly obsessing over may be no big deal at all. But if it’s really worrying you, be on the safe side by checking it out with your primary care physician. Don’t worry—doubtless she or he has seen it before. And sometimes, says Alyssa Foster, M.D., an internist at Comprehensive Medical Care in Englewood Cliffs who’s affiliated with Englewood Health, one of these “embarrassing” conditions is “your body telling you that something is not right, or something has changed.”
So don’t suffer alone and in silence if you’re plagued by one of the six generally hushed-up woes below. Says Dr. Foster: “In most cases, your doctor can provide valuable advice or medication (if needed) that will help provide relief.”
• Urinary incontinence. Dr. Foster notes that there are four types of incontinence (loss of bladder control), each with its characteristic symptoms: stress, overactive/urge, functional and overflow. If your condition is caused by stress, for example, you may experience leakage of urine when coughing, sneezing, laughing or lifting something heavy, whereas overactive/urge incontinence is characterized by an urgent or frequent need to pee. “Some, but not all, possible causes include urinary tract infections, constipation, irritation of any sort, overactive pelvic floor muscles and pelvic floor muscles that have weakened,” the physician says.
Tests your doctor may order: To identify the type of incontinence you’re experiencing, which will better guide treatment, your internist may perform a urinanalysis, a rectal exam or a pelvic exam, says Dr. Foster.
Next steps: If symptoms persist after an initial primary care visit, or if they’re affecting your everyday life, you may be referred to a urologist who specializes in urinary incontinence.
• Halitosis (“bad breath”). All of us have bacteria that live in our mouths and elsewhere, but some bacteria produce sulphur, which causes bad breath, says Dr. Foster. It can be triggered by smoking, acidic foods or poor oral hygiene, or can indicate an underlying issue such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a respiratory infection or a liver or kidney disorder. Its frequent companion: a dry mouth or tongue.
Tests your doctor may order: “There is no specific test needed to determine the presence of halitosis,” says Dr. Foster. She adds that a doc may suggest lifestyle changes such as brushing your teeth after eating, flossing and drinking more water.
Next steps: If symptoms persist after making those lifestyle changes or if you notice severe dry mouth or a coating on your tongue, consider booking an appointment with a dentist or periodontist for further evaluation.
• Excessive sweating. If you’re perspiring more often or more heavily than usual, it could be caused by your hormones, your exercise routine or your diet. Less commonly, excessive sweating can be indicative of an underlying health issue such as “overactive thyroid, diabetes, anxiety or, for women, menopause,” says our expert. Symptoms to look out for include visible sweat, frequent skin infections in areas where you sweat and sweat-prone areas of skin staying wet for extended periods of time.
Tests your doctor may order: There’s no specific test for this condition, but, if appropriate, your doc may run blood work that can help diagnose thyroid issues, hormonal imbalances or diabetes.
Next steps: If you’re diagnosed with one of the conditions above, your doctor can begin to treat you for it—and your sweats may turn out to have been a sign that helped you prevent more troubling symptoms down the road.
• Constipation. Drinking enough water and eating high-fiber foods can help move things along, but constipation—marked usually by having fewer than three bowel movements per week, straining when having bowel movements or producing lumpy/hard stools—can be brought on by more than just what you eat (or don’t eat). Dr. Foster says causes include “anxiety, an intestinal blockage, ‘lazy bowel syndrome’ or an abdominal pathology that pushes on the colon.” In fewer cases, it can be an indication of colon cancer.
Tests your doctor may order: Testing for constipation can run the gamut from blood work to detect underactive thyroid or calcium levels, a stool sample analysis or a rectal exam, the physician says.
Next steps: If you experience bleeding with bowel movements, rectum protruding from the anus (prolapse), hemorrhoids, pain with bowel movements or severe abdominal pain, make an appointment with a gastroenterologist, Dr. Foster advises.
• Body odor. The notorious BO isn’t just the smell of sweat; it’s sweat combined with bacteria on our skin. Various factors can influence the aroma you emit, including hormones, exercise routine, diet and infections. Dr. Foster says that people with body odor are often “noseblind” to their own scents. Immediate remedies, of course, include taking a shower with thorough scrubbing, using a deodorant and putting on for-sure fresh clothes.
Tests your doctor may order: Treatments vary vastly based on the cause of body odor, but expect to undergo blood or urine tests. “Your doctor may also suggest lifestyle changes such as removing overly fragrant foods from your diet, wearing loose linen clothing and finding ways to reduce your stress levels,” says our doctor.
Next steps: Your primary care practitioner may refer you to a gastroenterologist, dermatologist or endocrinologist for further evaluation.
• Belching/flatulence. These are normal and quite routine—they happen to all of us. “Burping is caused by swallowed air that never reaches the stomach and instead accumulates in the esophagus,” notes Dr. Foster. Chronic burpers tend to have habits such as eating or drinking too quickly, talking while eating, chewing gum or drinking soda. Breaking wind is the release of intestinal gas, which forms during the process of digesting food, and can be exacerbated if you swallow more air than usual or eat foods that are harder to digest.
Tests your doctor may order: “In a physical examination, the doctor can check for swelling and tenderness in your abdomen and stomach,” says Dr. Foster. “He or she may also perform a blood test, stool test or imaging tests of your digestive system.”
Next steps: Further medical attention may be warranted if you’re experiencing “persistent abdominal pain, bloating, recurring bouts of diarrhea or constipation, unexplained weight loss, bowel incontinence, blood in your stool or signs of infection,” says our physician. Either a gastroenterologist or a nutritionist—or perhaps both—may be helpful if the problem persists.