Watching Grey's Anatomy won't help you heal yourself, though it may make you happy. While it's fine to self-treat symptoms such as a runny nose or a mild headache, others require a health professional's attention. And a phone consult isn't always enough: Your doctor may need to see you. For instance, if you're having symptoms for the first time and are unsure why, consider scheduling a visit with your healthcare provider. And if you're experiencing familiar symptoms, you may still need medical advice, especially if the problems stick around.
"I certainly understand a patient wanting to just get some information over the phone. But a description over the phone doesn't always tell us what's going on," says Randy Wexler, a physician and associate professor of family medicine at Ohio State University. Read on to get information about common symptoms you shouldn't self-treat—even though a quick trip to the drug store can be very, very tempting.
Heartburn. You're starting to pop antacids like candy, and that's a problem. If you have heartburn twice a week or more and have been taking antacids or heartburn medications for more than two weeks, see your doctor, advises the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). You could have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a more serious form of acid reflux that can cause complications like ulcers and cancer if left untreated.
Another reason to dial your doc: "Sometimes heart disease can mimic heartburn," says Jorge Rodriguez, a gastroenterologist in Newport Beach, Calif., and author of The Acid Reflux Solution: A Cookbook and Lifestyle Guide for Healing Heartburn Naturally. If you have a cardiac issue, you need to be checked out. Plus, even if heart issues aren't to blame (and we hope they're not), prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medications can be dangerous if used for long periods of time, he adds. (For instance, OTC drugs such as Prilosec and Prevacid can increase your risk of fractures, according to the Food and Drug Administration.) Most doctors can treat GERD and will often recommend lifestyle changes, NIDDK reports.
Chronic dry eye. It's easy to rely on often-hyped eye drops, but if you always feel like you're in the Sahara (and you're not in the Sahara), consult a health professional. "People think that any time their eye is red that they just need eyedrops," says Wexler. But you could have anything from an infection to allergies. You'll want to see your doctor to figure out why your eyes are dry, so you can have any underlying problem treated and your vision checked, Wexler says.
Abnormal vaginal discharge. If your discharge suddenly smells or looks different, don't douche or buy over-the-counter yeast infection cream. You could have a bacterial infection, such as bacterial vaginosis, a sexually transmitted disease, or even non-allergic vaginitis (often caused by irritation from sprays, douches, or spermicides). And if you have a bacterial infection—the most common culprit of suspicious discharge in women of childbearing age—you'll need prescription antibiotics, according to the National Library of Medicine. Your healthcare professional can do an exam and recommend appropriate treatment.
A wound or bump that won't go away. You've had a weird spot or lump on your skin for more than a couple of weeks—it may look like the worst pimple ever—so you slather it with drugstore cream and hope for the best. Or you wait it out. Not the best idea. If you have a wound that's changing shape, growing, or not healing, "you need to see a doctor because it could be skin cancer," says Zoe Diana Draelos, vice president of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) and a consulting professor of dermatology at Duke University School of Medicine. Skin cancer can look different on different people, reports the AAD, but it does have a high cure rate if caught early. By the way, similar rules apply for your mouth. If you have a sore that doesn't improve after a week or two, call your dentist, advises the American Dental Association. While many mouth sores are harmless, others can signal infection or oral cancer.
A blister on the tip of your nose. See your doctor immediately, says Draelos. These blisters, often painful, could signal shingles, which is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox. Though people over 50 and people with a weakened immune system have a higher risk, "anyone who's had chicken pox can get shingles," says Draelos. And shingles on your face can damage an eye, says Draelos, so you must seek treatment.
[See: Take Action for Heart Health]
Heart palpitations accompanied by other symptoms. Your job is stressing you out. Or maybe it's your super active kids. But if you suddenly feel your heart beating extra fast or irregularly, it could signal a cardiac problem—especially if the feeling is accompanied by symptoms like dizziness, chest pain, or shortness of breath. (If you have these latter symptoms, call 911, advises the National Library of Medicine; and call your doctor if you have frequent palpitations or if you have risk factors for heart disease.) "People often think, 'well it's just anxiety,' but there are certain heart conditions that just present that way," Wexler says. So don't assume you can simply wait it out and move on. And, in general, don't think that you're bothering your healthcare provider if you have questions or concerns, says Wexler. If something feels very wrong or if your symptoms are ongoing, make the call.