What the Yuck?!
Your Most Personal Questions Answered
Got a truly embarrassing health question? A weird out-of-the-blue symptom? In this sneak peek at our new Health book, Dr. Roshini Raj fields your most personal and provocative questions—about your body, sex, even celeb health fads.
I keep getting yeast infections. Could my Spanx be to blame?
Much as I hate to say anything bad about my beloved Spanx, the body shapers could be contributing to your problem. We all have some vaginal yeast, but when that yeast multiplies, it becomes a problem. What makes it spread like crazy? A warm, damp crotch, for one. So when you wear underwear or body-shaping apparel like Spanx that is tight and made of a nonbreathable synthetic fabric, you’re setting the stage for overgrowth.
Spanx are hard to quit, for sure. You don’t have to go cold turkey. Just save your slimmers for short-term use and special occasions.
Q: Do flip-flops really protect me from catching something in the gym shower?
A: The warm, moist environment of shower stalls make them a dream breeding ground for bacteria and fungi. Flip-flops help a little bit, but you’re right: If there are stagnant pools of water and you step in them, you might as well be stepping in barefoot! The thing you’re most likely to catch is athlete’s foot—a treatable but annoying fungal infection—but there are plenty of other nasty bugs out there.
Your gym should be frequently cleaning the showers (and the walls, which are equally gross) in between users. If you don’t notice your health club doing this essential step, wait until you get home to shower off.
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.
RELATED: The Perfect Breast Shape, According to Science
Q: Suddenly, my bowel movements are green! What could that mean?
A: OK, deep breath. If you see something out of the ordinary (i.e., not in the brown palette), you can usually chalk it up to food. After all, what goes in must come out. Leafy greens (which contain chlorophyll and turn stool green) or even artificial food coloring can alter the hue of your poo, as can medicines and supplements.
Most diet-related stool-color changes will clear up in a day or two, after the food makes its way through your system. But if the color persists or changes to a red or even black color, or if you have other symptoms like constant urges to go to the bathroom, vomiting, or stomach cramps, see your doctor promptly.
Does pubic hair have a point?
It certainly does. Pubic hair acts as a buffer, preventing chafing of the delicate skin around your vagina when your partner is rubbing against you during sex. So if you wax it all off, you’ll be more susceptible to irritation down there.
Q: Why do I seem to get drunk faster on Champagne than other drinks?
A: It's not your imagination. While a glass of Champagne has the same alcohol content as a glass of wine or your basic cocktail, the bubbles (gas) in Champagne cause it to get absorbed faster in your stomach and into your bloodstream so you get drunk more quickly.
Also, because the Champagne-making process involves two fermentations, it contains more of certain chemicals (called congeners) that make hangovers worse. Guess that’s why we save it for special occasions!
Q: I've been craving sweets lately. Could that mean I have diabetes?
A: Nope. Craving sugar is not one of the symptoms of diabetes or hyperglycemia (too much blood glucose). Symptoms to look for are frequent urination, excessive thirst, fatigue, weight loss, and blurry vision. If you skip meals often, you may be experiencing hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. When your blood sugar starts to dip, you naturally long for a sugary snack to get it back up.
To break the cravings cycle, stick to three or more healthy meals a day—no skipping! Blowing off a meal can cause your blood sugar to drop and your body to seek a sugary solution.
Q: When celebs are hospitalized for exhaustion, what do they have exactly?
A: You got me! "Exhaustion" is not a medical diagnosis, and it’s certainly not one for which you will be admitted to any legit hospital.
It is true that if you really overtax your body—by abusing alcohol or drugs, not sleeping for days on end, starving yourself, or undergoing extreme physical stress (as you might experience doing your own stunts or filming in a remote location)—you can wear yourself out and suffer physical symptoms such as a weakened immune system, malnutrition, dehydration, depression, and anxiety as a result.
So if a star gets the "exhaustion" label, it could be any or all of the above. Or she may just be wiped out. She checks into a clinic for a little R&R; we eat ice cream in our pajamas and watch “Oprah”!
I think I’m addicted to sugar—I crave sweet snacks three or four times a day.
A: Don’t panic. It’s normal to long for sweets. One culprit is low levels of serotonin, the brain chemical responsible for making us feel happy—and your sugar craving could be your body’s effort to fix the problem. Studies suggest that sugar increases the absorption of the amino acid tryptophan, which the body uses to make serotonin.
Another possible cause is low blood sugar. Eating is the best way to get it back up and break the cravings cycle. Have three meals a day—no skipping! Blowing off a meal can cause your blood sugar to drop and your body to seek a fix, like a hit of chocolate. Also, choose healthy foods that keep your blood sugar stable.
And when you do want something sweet, make life easier by reaching for smart hunger busters like fruit, or two or three peanut M&Ms. (The protein and fat in the nuts will slow the candy’s absorption, so your blood sugar won’t spike so high.) There’s no need to swear off all sweets, though. New research shows that if you deny yourself treats, you’ll tend to binge when you do eat them. So live a little!
My flow is so heavy that even super-absorbent tampons aren't enough. What can I do?
If you need to change your tampon or pad more than every one to two hours, or if your period lasts longer than seven days, talk to your gyno about being tested for a bleeding disorder. Research shows that 25% of women who have a super-heavy flow may have one and not know it. Birth control pills can help regulate the bleeding by thinning out the uterine lining, and they can also help if a hormonal imbalance is the cause of the bleeding.
There is also a possibility that fibroids or polyps are causing your heavy periods. If that’s the case, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove them.
When is the color of your stool a cause for concern?
A: Rarely. If you see something unusual (not in the brown palette), you can usually chalk it up to food—what goes in must come out. Leafy greens and red fruits and veggies (like beets), or even artificial food colorings, can alter the hue of your poo, as can medicines and supplements.
Bright red blood in your stool could signal a polyp in your large intestine or rectum, rectal inflammation, diverticulosis, or even colon cancer. (Not to be confused with just a small smear of blood on your toilet paper, most likely caused by an anal fissure or hemorrhoid.) Tarry black stool can be a sign of older blood from higher up in your digestive tract, possibly due to a stomach or upper-gastrointestinal ulcer. And yellow stool may indicate a problem with fat digestion and absorption.
Most diet-related color changes will clear up in a day or two. If the unusual colors persist, or if you also have constant urges to go, vomiting, or stomach cramps, see your doc.
Is it OK to use scented body wash on my private parts?
Nope. The rest of your body may be very happy smelling like passion-fruit-verbena-berry raindrops, but the delicate skin in your genital area can’t take it.
Much like douches, scented bath products contain chemicals that can be irritating to the urethra and vagina and can increase your risk of urinary tract and yeast infections. Stick to plain, unscented soap and water, and wash the outer part of the vulva only.
Can you workout too much?
A: Actually, yes. Let your body be the judge. If you suffer from pain, muscle soreness that doesn’t go away in a day, or loss of strength, speed, or endurance—all signs of overtraining—then you probably need a break from the gym to recover.
There’s also a psychological disorder called "exercise bulimia," or compulsive exercise, in which people work out excessively, often for hours at a time. They get so obsessed with sweating off unwanted calories that it negatively impacts other parts of their life, from their career to their relationships. If that’s you, try talking to a therapist who specializes in eating disorders.
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.
What Are the Signs of IBS?
A: It’s possible. What people sometimes call "nervous stomach" can also be irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common disorder of the colon that can cause diarrhea, constipation, cramping, and/or bloating. Stress can trigger it, since some of the same chemicals, such as serotonin, that affect your brain when you’re anxious can change the movement of your intestines, too.
To combat the messy effects of this gut-brain connection, try an over-the-counter antidiarrheal medicine, such as Imodium, on the mornings you know you’ve got something stressful ahead of you, like a meeting with the boss. Relaxation techniques (yoga, cardio, or meditation) may also help. In any case, see your doctor to confirm that you have IBS; she may want to rule out other conditions, or she may suggest therapy and possibly an antidepressant, among other treatments, to ease the problem.
What's causing these weird bumps on my thighs?
A: You probably have keratosis pilaris (KP), a harmless skin disorder that often goes by the charming nickname “chicken skin.” Here's the idea: keratin, a protein in your skin, can form hard plugs within hair follicles. When this happens over a large section of your body (such as on an arm, leg, buttock, or even your face), you feel those little bumps. Nearly half of us get KP at some point in our lives.
The condition will sometimes go away on its own—give it a week—but if it doesn’t, moisturizing while your skin is wet could fix it. Look for a moisturizer like Eucerin Plus Intensive Repair Lotion ($11.99; drugstores) with urea or propylene glycol, chemicals that can help soften rough skin. Also, twice daily, apply a nonprescription lotion that contains lactic acid (such as AmLactin, $14); lactic acid should remove the extra keratin.
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.
Sometimes I see little brown specks floating in my field of vision. Should I be worried?
A: Those squiggly, dark lines and spots are called "eye floaters." They are typically caused by age-related changes in the vitreous humor, the jelly-like substance that fills most of the eyeball. Floaters are common and usually nothing to worry about.
If you start having them while seeing flashes of light, though, or suddenly get a bunch at once, see an ophthalmologist right away—you could have a tear in your retina, which may lead to vision loss if not treated ASAP.
I’ve heard of a company claiming to be making ice cream out of human breast milk. Is this safe to eat?
A: While I love any kind of ice cream, I won’t be asking for two scoops of mom’s milk any time soon. That’s because human milk is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A woman’s breast milk may contain traces of medications or drugs she may be taking, or diseases she may have, such as HIV or hepatitis.
The cow’s milk found in dairy products we get in stores, however, is protected by a web of FDA safety requirements designed to ensure that it comes from healthy livestock and is processed to avoid possible contamination. This is one case where breast isn’t best.
What's up with those UV-light dryers at the nail salon? Could they make you wrinkle faster? Or even give you skin cancer?
A: Those UV-light dryers are like tiny tanning beds, so you're right to be concerned. While this danger hasn't been looked at in any large-scale studies, dermatologists report finding more skin cancer on the fingers (typically a very rare location) of patients who have frequent exposure to these nail-drying lights.
In fact, a recent report in Archives of Dermatology said that using them may be a risk factor for the development of skin cancer. Also, we know that UV light increases your risk of cancer (and wrinkles), and if you're going to the nail salon every two weeks (or weekly), that will add up to significant exposure. My two cents? Use them sparingly, or, better yet, let your nails dry on their own. It may take a bit longer, but it's worth the effort to save your skin.
Can I have caffeine before a workout or race?
For regular coffee or tea drinkers, caffeine might boost energy and extend endurance during a sweat session, so there's generally no harm in having a cup or two before the gym. But there are some safety considerations to keep in mind, especially if your body isn't used to caffeine: It can raise your blood pressure and heart rate, which can be dangerous if you're strenuously exerting yourself or have heart disease.
Another potential side effect? Diarrhea—something you definitely don't want during a race.
Do I need to buy new makeup after I get a cold sore?
Short answer: No. These pesky, painful sores come to you courtesy of the herpes simplex virus (HSV), usually HSV-1 (oral herpes, as opposed to HSV-2, genital herpes), and once you get it, it's yours to keep: HSV stays dormant in your body, flaring up unpredictably every few months or years. (Recurrences are thought to be triggered by menstruation, stress, prolonged or extreme sun exposure, or fever.)
All this might be a big bummer, but at least you don't need to worry about reinfecting yourself with contaminated makeup, since you already have HSV-1 for life. However, the virus is very contagious, and it can pass to someone else even when you don't have a visible lesion, so don't share your makeup with anyone.
Should I get tested for vitamin deficiency?
If you eat a well-balanced diet and feel normal (as in, don't have any signs of a serious deficiency, which include out-of-the-ordinary fatigue, dizziness and yellow skin, among other things), you likely don't need to worry about most vitamin deficiencies. But there's one exception: You can have too low a level of vitamin D without any obvious symptoms—especially if you're being smart about staying out of the sun (one of the most potent sources of vitamin D there is). So you might want to ask your doctor to test your D levels next time you get a checkup—and you should definitely do so if you're vegan or vegetarian, or if you tend not to eat dairy products, many of which provide lots of vitamin D.
Does getting a concussion cause any long-term damage in adults?
It can, especially if it occurs more than once. A concussion—which is a traumatic brain injury from a blow to the head or from a very rough shaking—can be mild or severe. Mild ones can result in temporary symptoms, like headache, disorientation, nausea and balance problems, that last for days or weeks, then clear up completely. (Seek medical attention if you have repeated vomiting or a loss of consciousness longer than one minute.)
Be careful to avoid another head injury soon after, while your brain is still healing, because you can develop potentially fatal brain swelling. As we've been learning from NFL players, getting multiple concussions is linked to an increased risk of dementia, so take precautions, like wearing a helmet, when you bike or ski.
Suddenly, sex is painful for me. Should I worry?
Pain during or after sex is often due to inadequate lubrication—frequently triggered by a hormonal change (like those caused by menopause, childbirth or even birth control) or by medications such as antidepressants, antihistamines or high-blood-pressure pills. Using lube should help. Pain can also come from tensing or spasms of the vaginal walls, which can be a result of anxiety about sex if you've had painful sex in the past. If you've ruled out those possibilities, you might want to get checked by your gynecologist, since the discomfort could also be a sign of an infection, endometriosis, an ovarian cyst or fibroids.
Is it possible to be literally addicted to chocolate?
Sort of. Some studies looking at rodents found that chocolate can stimulate the same parts of the brain that are affected by highly addictive drugs, like heroin. And human studies have confirmed what we all know, which is that chocolate can lead to pleasure and desire for more of it, much as a drug might. However, the craving is likely more emotional than physical—so you won't get the shakes if you give up the brownies!
I get way more mosquito bites than other people. Why—and what can I do about it?
Genetics and body chemistry play a big role in making some of us more appealing to mosquitoes than others. For example, some people have high concentrations of cholesterol on their skin (a natural consequence of the body's processing of it), which attract those little bloodsuckers. Mosquitoes are also drawn to carbon dioxide; the larger you are, the more CO2 you exhale.
To protect yourself, limit skin exposure by wearing long sleeves and pants; avoid wearing perfume and dark colors (which may attract mosquitoes); and try an insect repellent with DEET, oil of lemon eucalyptus or picaridin.
I love to travel, but I always end up constipated. Any way to prevent that?
Getting blocked on the road is common and can be caused by a number of factors. You might be exercising less, dehydrated from a long plane ride (or from excess alcohol or caffeine) or eating less fiber than usual, and your circadian rhythms, which affect digestion, may be altered because of a time change. Sip from a water bottle throughout the day; eat high-fiber fruit, vegetables and whole grains with every meal; and avoid being sedentary for long stretches.
My doctor told me I have borderline high cholesterol and should watch my diet. I don't eat a lot of fatty foods, so what else should I do?
Your next mission is to add good-fat foods that can actually improve your heart health and cholesterol numbers. These include olive oil, nuts, avocado and fatty fish, which contain healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Also consider eating more foods with soluble fiber (like oatmeal, kidney beans and apples), which can reduce the amount of cholesterol absorbed into your bloodstream; adding 5 to 10 grams of it to your daily diet can lower your LDL by about 5 percent.
If you want to raise "good" HDL cholesterol, increase aerobic exercise: Working out frequently can boost HDL by up to 5 percent in two months. Shoot for 30 minutes a day five days a week.
My skin gets really itchy whenever I work out. What's going on?
There are several possible reasons. Some medications, like certain antibiotics, pain meds and diuretics, can cause itchiness only while you're exerting yourself. When you sweat and your clothes get wet, you are also more susceptible to an allergy or irritation from something in or on your clothing—either a new detergent or the fabric itself.
More rare is an allergic reaction called cholinergic urticaria, which is an outbreak of itching or hives caused by your own sweat. For most people, the condition will go away on its own. You can take an antihistamine for it, but do check with your doctor first, especially if you're also experiencing shortness of breath—that signals a true anaphylactic reaction from exercise and can quickly turn into an emergency. Your doctor can prescribe medications and advise you on other preventive steps so you can get your sweat on safely.
I think I might have a food intolerance. Can I do an elimination diet on my own?
In most cases, it's fine to do an elimination diet on your own. You may have noticed symptoms like bloating, gas or irritability after eating the suspect food. (Lactose, gluten, alcohol and yeast are common culprits.)
The exceptions: If you think you have a gluten intolerance, it's a good idea to be tested by a doctor for celiac disease, an immune response in the gut, before you eliminate it from your diet. And if you're not sure what may be causing your symptoms or you think you have multiple intolerances, it may be useful to have a registered dietitian (find one at
eatright.org) help you map out a more complicated plan in which you slash your intake down to basics, then slowly add foods back.
My boobs are naturally lumpy. How will I know if I find a bad one?
Having lumpy, or fibrocystic, breasts is common and harmless, but it does present a challenge. Women with naturally lumpy breasts have more dense areas of tissue in their breasts than other women, so mammograms aren't as effective a screen for breast cancer. Your doctor may recommend an ultrasound, so make sure to get regular screenings. (I still urge getting annual mammograms after 40, or earlier, despite the ongoing controversy over when is best to receive them.) Also, become familiar with your breasts. Do informal self-exams once a month so that if something new pops up, you'll know. Right after your period is the ideal time to perform a self-exam, since it's not abnormal for your breasts to become lumpier as your next period nears.
Does eating sugar really depress the immune system?
Sugar seems to be the villain du jour, and certainly excess sugar can cause a host of health issues. But the relationship between sugar and immunity is not clear. Some experts believe that excess glucose decreases the activity of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that can kill invading microbes. While it's true that diabetics have trouble fighting infections, there's not enough research to back up the link between sweets and an increased risk of infections.
We do know that obese people tend to have weakened immunity—which means anything that increases weight, including sugar and excess calories, can be harmful to your immune system. Plus, if you are eating a lot of sugar, those foods could be replacing healthy whole foods that support your immune system. Bottom line: If you're trying to keep sick days at bay, stick to nutrient-dense foods and keep your sugar intake low.
I want to be proactive about staying healthy. Should I get a full-body scan?
No. You might think that this is an easy way to achieve peace of mind, but a full-body CT scan will most likely do nothing but harm. These procedures involve a lot of radiation, which is known to up your cancer risk down the road. (A full-body CT scan can expose you to radiation levels that are between 500 and 1,000 times as high as what you'd get from a routine chest X-ray.) On top of that, among the few studies on full-body scans that exist, many suggest that the risk of a false positive result is very high. This means that the scan may reveal some type of abnormality that isn't ever going to turn into, say, cancer. But simply knowing about it can lead to more stressful, expensive and painful tests. You're better off paying attention to symptoms as they arise and getting them checked out.
Is it true that a hair dryer is loud enough to harm your hearing?
Besides aging, the most common cause of hearing loss in adults is loud noise. And your hair dryer could possibly play a role. Noise-induced hearing loss can happen from a single really loud sound (like a gun firing) or from exposure to loud sounds for long periods. There's no reversing this type of hearing loss, because it's caused by damage to hair cells inside the ear, which do not regenerate. For most people, the safe threshold for prolonged exposure is 85 decibels. Many hair dryers clock in at as high as 80 to 90. While you may not use your hair dryer for hours each day, it can add to the mix of other potentially harmful sounds in our lives (rock concerts, street noise), and the effects are cumulative. So it's worth cutting out noise wherever you can. Wearing earplugs during your blowouts can be a good place to start.
Recently my lips got very itchy after I ate shrimp. Could I have suddenly become allergic?
You can develop food allergies at any time, and shellfish allergies often crop up in adulthood. The symptoms, which typically occur within minutes of eating the offending food, can include itching or swelling of the lips, tongue or face; hives; difficulty breathing; and nausea or vomiting. If you've become allergic, your body will produce more antibodies each time you eat shrimp, so your next reaction could be worse—even life-threatening. See an allergist before you eat shrimp or any type of shellfish again. The doctor can run tests to confirm your allergy and prescribe medications. Sadly, the best treatment for any allergy is avoidance.
Is laser hair removal really safe?
Yes, but it's most safely and effectively performed in a medical setting. During the procedure, the provider uses a device that sends a laser beam into hair follicles, which are destroyed as the pigment in them absorbs the light. Afterward, your skin will likely be red and swollen, but this usually goes away within 24 hours. More rare are blisters or burns, which can lead to scarring or uneven skin tone; people with darker skin are at higher risk of complications. That's why you should go to a doctor or a medical technician, who will be able to choose the right device and setting for your skin and handle any issues that come up. Ask ahead of time if you'll be in experienced hands; you'll want someone who has done hundreds of procedures. Also, if the provider uses one type of setting for all skin types or doesn't seem interested in your medical history, go somewhere else.