Is My Body Normal?
I have one breast that's much bigger than the other. Is that weird?
Nope. Most women have slight differences in the shapes and sizes of their breasts (one nipple points north while the other points south, for example). It’s normal to have one breast larger than the other; sometimes, even by a cup size or two.
As long as this size difference isn’t new, you’re OK. But if one breast has suddenly gotten bigger or feels different (thicker, fuller, or lumpy), you need to be checked out by your doc. A unilateral (one-sided) change could be a sign of a cyst or even a tumor.
Are women with large breasts more likely to get breast cancer?
Being well-endowed doesn't up your chances of developing cancer. That said, being overweight does increase your risk of breast cancer. So if your curves are from your weight, you're at a higher risk than a woman who is slim.
Big boobs can also make feeling lumps or detecting tumors more difficult. Larger breasts have more tissue, and the more tissue there is, the more you have to feel and inspect. That's why it’s important for women with larger breasts to visit their doctor annually (if not more often) for a clinical breast exam, and to get yearly mammograms if over 40.
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I bruise really easily. Should I be worried?
It is something you should discuss with your doctor. Bruises do tend to show up more often as you age, though. Your skin gets thinner and blood vessels become a little more fragile, so it could be that you simply need to be more careful when hustling past sharp corners. You also may bruise more if you’re taking drugs that hamper your blood’s clotting ability, including over-the-counter blood thinners such as ibuprofen or aspirin, or prescription blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin). Dietary supplements like fish oil and vitamin E, and foods like garlic and ginger have also been shown to have a blood-thinning effect. Talk to your doctor if you suspect your bruising is the side effect of a blood thinner.
If you experience nosebleeds along with bruising, or if the bruises are large and painful or appeared after you began taking a new medication, see your doctor to rule out a serious illness or drug complication.
My handbag weighs a ton. Can that hurt my back?
Yes, it can: Carrying a heavy purse on one shoulder can trigger shoulder and back pain. It can cause posture issues as well—usually because you are compensating for the weight by hunching one shoulder. That causes a postural imbalance, and after years and years, it might be very visible.
It's best to limit the weight of your bag to three pounds, and for heavier loads use backpacks or roller bags. Not the most fashionable, I know, but it's a choice between being fashionable and having back pain.
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My nipples point in different directions. Is that normal?
Nothing at all. Many of us have breasts that are slightly different from each other (just as our eyes or feet, say, may not be exactly the same size). See your doctor if your bidirectional nipples are a new development or are accompanied by pain or a dramatic change in breast size; otherwise, there's no need to worry about them.
Why do I suddenly have bad body odor?
A quick primer on BO: Bacteria on our skin survive by munching on fat in our sweat; when they digest it, they produce the smell we know and loathe. So why more stink now? If you’re perimenopausal or menopausal, fluctuating hormones may be sending your sweat glands into overdrive. Stress can also boost sweating.
In both cases, your perspiration should lessen in time—and the stink, too. For now, try an antiperspirant with the words “clinical protection” on the label—you’ll get more active ingredients to help fight off sweat-happy bacteria.
I have huge nipples, and they always stick out. What can I do?
Poor thing. Even those of us with smaller nips know how you feel—there's nothing more maddening than seeming like you're flaunting your body when you'd actually give anything to have your body stand out less. This may make you feel better: Nipples come in all sizes, and they're all normal. As you probably know, all nipples swell and become erect when we're sexually aroused. This natural process also happens when the tiny muscles around the nipples are stimulated-by cold or from something rubbing them (like a shirt or bra).
In addition to having more prominent nipples, you may be more sensitive than other women to these stimuli. The best solution: new padded bras. They work wonders, preventing unwanted stimulation from your bra or shirt and helping conceal your bumps. Also, wearing thicker fabrics like cotton makes it harder for the headlights to shine through.
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Is it ok to stick a Q-Tip in your ear?
We know, it feels so good to get in there! But cotton swabs are meant for use on the outside of your ear, not the inside. Sticking one in too far can push wax deeper inside the ear canal, possibly damaging the eardrum. And a little wax is actually healthy—it helps protect your sensitive ear canal.
If your ears are feeling really clogged up, see your doctor, who can suggest ear drops to use at home, or safely remove blockage for you.
To stop your pain and avoid future problems, you need to prevent the need to strain. Try a high-fiber diet plus six to eight glasses of water a day. This combo can soften your stool, making it easier to empty your bowels. The best natural fiber sources are whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, but in a pinch a supplement will do.
For temporary relief from pain or itching, you might try an OTC cream or a sitz bath (an apparatus that allows you to soak your bum in warm water while sitting on the toilet). Ask your doctor about adding salt or baking soda to the water for additional relief.
My allergies drive me crazy. Should I try shots?
If allergy meds aren't controlling your symptoms well enough, or if you can't tolerate those drugs because of side effects, it might be worth trying shots—but know that they're a time commitment and they aren't effective for everyone. Each injection deposits a tiny amount of the allergen under the skin—not enough to trigger a reaction, but just enough for your immune system to start getting desensitized to it.
After that, most people get a maintenance shot once or twice a month for up to five years. About a third of patients see their allergies return, but many experience a permanent improvement in symptoms or have them disappear for good. Shots work better for some allergies than they do for others; talk to an allergist about the likelihood of having success eliminating yours.
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I've heard I'm not supposed to keep medications in the bathroom—what else do I need to know about storing them?
It's true: Medications can lose potency if exposed to extreme temperatures or humidity, which is why it's better to keep pills in a cool, dry place, like a closet, rather than in the bathroom. Other considerations: If you're refilling a prescription by mail, check to see if your medication is sensitive to heat or cold (it should say on the bottle), since it might sit in the sizzling sun or frosty chill of the truck or your mailbox.
If your Rx is susceptible, the pharmacy should package it appropriately (some even come with dry ice). And if you're going on a road trip, avoid stowing your meds in the trunk, which can get swelteringly hot on a warm day.
I got two bad colds last winter that turned into tonsillitis. Is that a reason to have my tonsils out?
Removing the tonsils, those two fleshy bits of soft tissue at the back of your throat, used to be common, but not anymore. These days, your doctor will probably consider taking out your tonsils only if you have very frequent tonsillitis (seven times or more in a year, or multiple times each year for several years), if you have a severe bacterial infection in the area that doesn't improve with antibiotics or if your tonsils are making it hard for you to breathe or swallow.
Most other episodes of tonsillitis—infection and inflammation of the tonsils that lead to a sore throat and difficulty swallowing—are caused by viruses and go away on their own, so there would be no need for you to go under the knife.
I know a glass of wine every day can be good for heart health. Do you still benefit if you cook with wine rather than drink it?
Not really. Wine may add great low-calorie flavor to your dish, but most of its heart benefits come from the alcohol, almost all of which gets cooked off when it's heated. And while resveratrol, which is present in the skin of the grape, may protect against obesity and diabetes according to animal studies, the substance isn't concentrated enough in a glass of wine to be helpful to your health, regardless of whether you drink it or use it in your tomato sauce.
My period is suddenly irregular—what's up with that?
It's not unusual to miss a period every now and then, or for your period occasionally to be different (lighter, heavier, longer or shorter) than usual. If you're not pregnant, other factors that can throw your hormones (and thus your cycle) out of whack include stress, a large weight loss or gain, travel, a big increase in the amount of exercise you're doing or illness.
Period irregularity is also a very common symptom of perimenopause, the stage leading up to menopause, which starts anytime between your late 30s and early 50s and can last between a few months and 10 years. (When you've missed a full 12 months of periods, that's officially menopause.)
Treatment suggestions may include taking birth control pills, trying hormone therapy or adopting a more regular and healthy diet and workout plan.
I get painful leg cramps in the middle of the night. How can I prevent them?
Nighttime leg and foot cramps are common, and they increase as we age; pregnant women are also prone to them. While the cause can be tough to pinpoint, culprits include muscle fatigue (from a hard workout or uncomfortable shoes), dehydration or sitting for too long. These cramps can also result from taking certain medications, like statins, steroids and even birth-control pills. Or they may be an indication that you have low levels of magnesium, calcium or potassium in your blood.
To prevent them, try leg stretches before bed, especially if you think muscle fatigue is the cause of your problem. Make sure you get seven to eight hours of sleep a night, and drink plenty of water—light yellow pee is an indication that you're well-hydrated. Eat a balanced diet, with plenty of calcium (dairy products are a great way to load up), magnesium (from foods like almonds, whole-wheat bread and spinach) and potassium (found in meat and fish, as well as bananas and broccoli). Taking a 300-milligram magnesium supplement might also help (if pregnant, consult your ob-gyn first).
In rare cases, cramps are related to circulation problems or thyroid trouble. So if nothing seems to help and the pain is interfering with your sleep, a doctor's visit is in order.
I need a new doctor. Is it safe to trust the reviews online?
Choosing a physician is like going on a date: It's very personal, and just because someone else likes her doesn't mean you will. On the other hand, dozens of recent positive reviews on an online doctor-rating site, such as vitals.com or zocdoc.com, are a good sign. People rarely take the time to write a good review unless they're very impressed. A lot of negative write-ups can also shed light on an MD, especially if there's consensus about the doctor's failings.
Remember, though, that reviews are generally more a gauge of bedside manner and how the office is run than a measure of medical ability. Even better than advice from strangers would be a personal recommendation from a friend or a doctor you know and trust.
Is it normal to get stomach pains after eating a big meal?
It depends on how big the meal was. Gas is produced during the digestion process, which causes the stomach and intestines to expand. Most of the time, you don't notice the expansion, but if you have a very large meal or one with a lot of gas-producing foods—like broccoli or beans—you may have painful bloating. Another possible cause: acid reflux, especially if the meal included tomato sauce, caffeine or citrus fruit. Reflux is commonly associated with heartburn but can also cause abdominal pain and bloating. This is nothing to worry about if it happens occasionally, but if it occurs more than three times a week, talk to your doctor about taking meds to control it, since over time the acid can cause inflammation of your esophagus.
If your postmeal pain is constant and severe, is in your upper abdomen and is accompanied by fever or nausea, see a doctor. It might be a gallstone—a hard pebble in your gallbadder that can get lodged in a duct and cause pain following a feast, and sometimes lead to inflammation and infection. Your doctor may want to watch and wait, since these stones often go away on their own. Or you may need medication or surgery to treat the problem.
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Is that callus-removal solution they use during pedicures safe?
Most liquid callus removers contain a caustic ingredient (like salicylic acid or potassium hydroxide) to soften that tough layer of skin so it can be sloughed off more easily. This stuff is safe for use on thick, hardened skin but can cause irritation on regular skin, which is why your pedicurist probably wears gloves when she uses it. If you have any cracks in your calluses, opt out of this part of your pedi; the harsh chemicals could slip through and inflame the delicate skin beneath. Finally, if you have poor circulation or diabetes, skip the pedicure altogether and talk to your doc, since you're at higher risk of infection from even a small insult to the skin on your feet.
I read that more young women are being diagnosed with breast cancer. Should I be worried?
Though the reason is not clear, a recent study did show a slight increase in advanced breast cancer for women age 25 to 39. But don't get too concerned: The numbers are very small. The total cases of advanced breast cancer in young women went from about 250 in 1976 to about 800 in 2009—so it's still quite uncommon. That's why if you're average-risk (i.e., you don't have a family history or other major risk factor) and aren't experiencing troubling symptoms, it's not worth getting routine mammograms before the age of 40. However, you should never assume you can't get breast cancer just because you're young. If you notice any changes—a lump, pain or swelling—always get them checked out by a doctor.
Is there any way to tell the difference between a bad headache and one that's life-threatening?
Most headaches aren't dangerous—a migraine may feel awful, but you'll survive it. In very rare cases, though, extreme head pain is a sign of something worrisome and even potentially fatal—like a ruptured aneurysm or hemorrhagic stroke, in which a blood vessel in the brain leaks or bursts. Patients often describe these headaches, which are medical emergencies, as "the worst headache of my life." They typically come on abruptly and forcefully, and they can be accompanied by neurological changes like confusion or blurred vision. Meningitis, an infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, can also cause a severe headache, often along with a stiff neck. If you suspect your pain might be something serious, play it safe and get medical attention as soon as possible.
I recently stayed at a hotel where there were lamps made of salt blocks, said to relieve allergies and purify the air. Is this for real?
Not to, um, dim your hopes, but it's doubtful. Believers claim that these glowing lamps—the body is a hunk of orangey rock salt, and there's either a lightbulb or a candle tucked inside—emit negative ions, which bind to positively charged dust and allergens in the air and can alleviate myriad ailments. But there's simply no good science to back any of this up. That said, salt water does have a long history of healing; for example, rinsing nasal passages with saline can help loosen mucus and reduce dryness and inflammation. But if you spring for a lamp, use it for the mood lighting, not the medicinal benefits.
I took antibiotics to clear up a UTI, but I still have some symptoms. What's going on?
It's possible that the antibiotics—even if you finished the entire course—may not have wiped out all the bacteria causing the problem. Your doctor can check your urine to see if there are any remaining. If you again test positive for a UTI, your doctor may simply try putting you on a different antibiotic. But if you test negative for bacteria, the irritation may be due to something you've come into contact with, such as spermicidal jelly or bubble bath. Finally, you could have interstitial cystitis, which is chronic, unexplained inflammation of the bladder—and is sometimes mistaken for a UTI. Thankfully, there are a number of medications and therapies that can treat this condition. Visit your doctor or see a urologist to discuss your next steps.
My friend swears by homeopathic remedies for colds and flu. Do they actually work?
Let's begin with a bit of background: Homeopathy is an alternative therapy that involves giving patients highly diluted doses of various minerals, botanicals and other natural substances. The idea is that "like cures like." In other words, ingesting a tiny amount of something (say, an extract made from bees or poison ivy) that may produce the symptoms of a particular disease can trigger your body's natural defenses to kick in and heal your system. While this practice has been in use since at least the 18th century, there is unfortunately no consistent scientific evidence that it's more effective than placebos in treating colds and flu. What's more, homeopathic remedies are often so diluted that they don't contain any measurable trace of the active ingredient. Your best bet for feeling better sooner is to focus on getting a lot of sleep, keeping hydrated and having a bowl of chicken soup—one natural remedy that has been shown to help.