Maybe it’s a sprained ankle that still feels wobbly months later. Or colds that seem to leave you coughing for weeks afterward.
Sometimes, minor health problems hang on for much longer than expected or become chronic nuisances. That might be because with age, the natural weakening of the immune system slows the healing process. But a factor such as medication overuse or a condition you might not know you have — such as asthma — can also play a role.
That’s why it’s important to treat minor problems properly. “Choosing the right approach to seemingly simple problems may prevent them from turning into complex ones down the road,” says Marvin M. Lipman, Consumer Reports’ chief medical adviser. Here’s a look at how to handle three common health problems so that they don’t affect you long-term:
Up to 30 percent of people who sprain an ankle end up with chronic ankle instability, so the ankle may wobble while walking, sprain repeatedly and be painful and swollen for months. This can occur even if the initial sprain is mild, according to a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports.
Treat it right. You can skip icing; it isn’t very effective. A 2013 review by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) found that an over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB and generic) or naproxen (Aleve and generic) can help with pain and swelling. Elevating the ankle and wrapping it in an elastic bandage can also reduce swelling, but unwrap it once the swelling subsides.
If you have more than mild bruising and swelling, see your doctor. “You want to rule out a minor fracture, bone contusion or a torn ligament, since these usually don’t heal on their own,” says Steven L. Haddad, a senior attending physician at the Illinois Bone & Joint Institute.
Prevent recurrences. Within the first 48 to 72 hours, begin gentle exercises such as foot circles (20 rotations clockwise and 20 counterclockwise) twice daily. These help you get back to activities you enjoy sooner, Haddad notes. The NATA study also found that balance exercises are important for reducing the rate of reinjury. (Go to acsm.org, the website of the American College of Sports Medicine, or ask your doctor whether you’d benefit from physical therapy.) If you have already had repeat sprains, have your doctor recommend at-home exercises or physical therapy.
Do colds seem to stick around for weeks or turn into bronchitis? Almost two-thirds of adults who had at least two episodes of bronchitis over five years were actually found to have mild asthma, according to a study in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. “A simple cold can inflame your lower airways, exacerbating asthma symptoms such as a cough and chest tightness,” explains Bradley E. Chipps, president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
Treat it right. See your primary-care physician if a wet cough from a cold lasts more than 10 days. “It’s not uncommon for someone with undiagnosed mild asthma to complain that a cough from a viral infection lingers for many weeks or even months,” Chipps says. Your doctor can order tests such as spirometry to determine whether you have asthma.
Prevent recurrences. If you notice that coughs routinely last for weeks after a cold, see your doctor, especially if you also notice asthma symptoms such as shortness of breath and chest tightness.
If you do turn out to have mild asthma, your doctor can advise you on how and when to use prescription bronchodilators and inhaled corticosteroids to keep problems from flaring up when you get a cold.
Most stomach bugs run their course in a few days. But about 10 percent of people with a bacterial gastrointestinal infection such as salmonella or E. coli go on to develop a type of irritable bowel syndrome known as post-infectious IBS. The condition, which can bring alternating diarrhea and constipation, can result from inflammation that fails to fully resolve once the infection changes bowel function and the nerves that regulate GI-tract function, according to Jay Kuemmerle, chair of the division of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.
Treat it right. Stay hydrated and follow the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, apples and toast) while you’re ill. For a GI infection that lasts more than five days, see your doctor. If a stool sample reveals neither bacteria nor elevated levels of infection-fighting white blood cells, this can indicate post-infectious IBS, Kuemmerle says. About half the time, this goes away on its own within a couple of weeks, but for some, symptoms last for months or years.
Prevent recurrences. You can’t avert post-infectious IBS, but stress, anxiety and smoking increase the likelihood. If you develop it, follow a low-FODMAP diet. (“FODMAP” stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols — all carbohydrates.) On it, you’ll skip typical gas producers such as beans, and foods that contain wheat or fructose such as apples, cherries, mangoes and pears. Several studies — including one published last year in the journal Gastroenterology — found that this plan significantly relieved symptoms. Other treatments could include probiotics to rebalance gut bacteria and prescription drugs such as eluxadoline (Viberzi) and alosetron (Lotronex and generic) to reduce diarrhea and abdominal pain.
For further guidance, go to ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.