8 Ways to Avoid Common Self-Care Mistakes

Treating common illnesses at home isn't complicated. Even so, doing it safely requires knowledge and a willingness to follow the rules.

You don’t want to call your doctor over every little fever or sniffle. But when you’re calling the shots, you want to be confident you’re making wise health care decisions.

“When your family’s health is in your hands, it’s important to know the proper way to care for them and yourself,” says Derjung Mimi Tarn, M.D., Ph.D., a family medicine specialist in Los Angeles.

Here are steps to take to avoid some common self-care mistakes.

Watch the dose

1. Don’t take more medication than the label recommends. Some people think if one dose of medication is good for them, then two must be even better. But the dosage recommendations on the package are there to protect you.

For example, too much ibuprofen over time can cause gastrointestinal bleeding or ulcers. Too much acetaminophen can cause liver damage. Overdosing on some over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medications may cause extreme drowsiness or seizures.

“Be especially wary when taking two OTC products at the same time, even if each is treating a different symptom,” Dr. Tarn says. “If both contain the same ingredient, you’ll be getting a risky double dose. Check the labels carefully before using.”

Treat the cause

2. Don’t treat symptoms without treating their cause. One danger of self-treating with OTC drugs is you may confuse symptom relief with a cure—meaning your underlying health problem may continue or worsen even as you start feeling better.

“For example, people sometimes take OTC drugs containing phenazopyridine (such as Pyridium) for relief of burning due to a urinary tract infection,” Dr. Tarn says. “Patients may think that because the burning is improving, so is the infection, when in reality they need antibiotics.”

A better approach? Get the advice of your pharmacist or doctor.

Call your doctor

3. Don’t treat too long before calling your doctor. You don’t always save money by not seeing the doctor. Often the reverse is true—a doctor visit could save you hundreds if not thousands of dollars in medical costs if it keeps a small problem from becoming a big one.

For example, if you don’t start taking antibiotics right away for that urinary tract infection, what began as a minor condition could evolve into a full-blown kidney infection that requires stronger, more expensive antibiotics or even hospitalization.

Don't borrow meds

4. Don’t use someone else’s prescription medications. It’s common for people to give friends or family members their medications to try. But that’s not safe for several reasons.

For starters, some drugs require a prescription because they may not be safe for everyone, may need special monitoring, and may interact with other medications. A physician prescribes medications based on a physical examination, test results, health history, and knowledge of other drugs a person is taking. That’s why a drug that’s beneficial for one person could be harmful for another.

Don't keep the leftovers

5. Don’t use leftover prescription medications. Suppose you have medication left over from a previous illness and then you develop similar symptoms. Does it make sense to take the leftover medication? Not necessarily. Your symptoms may be the same but the condition—and its appropriate treatment—may be different.

“Always talk with your doctor before taking a drug that was prescribed at another time,” Dr. Tarn says.

Caution on herbal remedies

6. Don’t take herbal or other alternative medicines without telling your doctor. Most people don’t realize herbal remedies are drugs and need to be taken cautiously. Some of them can raise blood pressure, thin the blood, or interact with other medications you may be taking.

For this reason, be sure to get your doctor’s OK before taking them; and when your doctor prescribes a medication, always speak up about any alternative treatments you use.

Follow your doctor's advice

7. Don’t substitute the advice of friends or family for a doctor’s expertise. An old family remedy for a stomachache or arthritis may be helpful, or at worst, do you no harm. But it’s always wise to ask your doctor for a professional opinion, particularly if the treatment could be risky or your condition could be serious.

Look for good information

8. Don’t consult just any health book or Internet site. If a book or website promises a magical cure, or makes outspoken claims against the conventional medical approach, that’s a good clue to be wary of its advice.

Also, some Internet sites are sponsored by companies that are more interested in selling their products than in serving your best interests. When in doubt, ask your doctor to recommend the best source of information for your needs.

“Anytime your family’s health is in your hands, pay attention to your information sources: Are you visiting the right website? Reading the label? Tapping into the expertise of your doctor or pharmacist?” Dr. Tarn says. “All the information you need is there; it’s only a matter of seeking it out.”

When to call

How do you know when it’s time to stop self-treating a health problem and get on the phone to your doctor? An important clue: Are you getting better, or is the problem lingering or getting worse?

These are examples of when to call:

  • A cough that persists

  • A headache that won't go away or that keeps coming back

  • Heartburn that keeps returning

  • Fever that lasts more than a few days

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