13 Embarrassing Health Questions and Answers

Updated: Feb. 06, 2023

Don't shy away from these questions — we beat you to the punch with the answers to some of the most embarrassing health questions.

Question: My feet smell terrible! I’m worried that other people will notice. What can I do?

You need to keep those babies dry — feet have more sweat glands than any other body part except the palms of your hands. Choose shoes made of breathable material (leather, canvas), and air them out for at least a day between wearings. Wash your feet daily (an antibacterial soap can’t hurt). If they’re still less than fresh, soak them in a solution of one part vinegar to two parts water once a day for a week. And if you have athlete’s foot, treat it — a bad case can lead to a bacterial infection, which adds to the odor.

Question: I sweat so much I don’t dare wear a silk top or light colors. Can you help?

Check what you’re applying, and when. You need an antiperspirant; a deodorant tackles odors but doesn’t do a thing for wetness. Antiperspirants actually block the pores that emit the sweat. You’ll get better results if you put it on at night.

Still dripping? Talk to your doctor about a prescription antiperspirant, which can stop up your sweat ducts nicely. Or — no joke — consider Botox. The same treatment that smoothes forehead wrinkles can also block the armpit nerves that stimulate sweat glands. It requires a series of injections, so you can expect a bit of discomfort but the treatment’s FDA-approved, which reduces the pain to your pocketbook.

Question: Why can’t I control my frequent belching?

You’re probably just swallowing too much air. We all suck in some when we eat or drink — then body heat makes it expand, creating the perfect set-up for a belch. You can dial back on air intake by cutting out a few habits: sucking on hard candy, chewing gum, smoking, drinking soda, or gulping your food. If you’re still burping, it might be a sign that you have acid reflux or even an infection from the ulcer-causing bacterium Helicobacter pylori. Over-the-counter remedies can help for reflux, but if you don’t get relief, you may need to see a doctor.

Question: My eyes are always bloodshot and they look awful. How can I make the whites of my eyes whiter?

Many of the eye’s blood vessels are tiny enough that if you can see them, they’re irritated or inflamed, says ophthalmologist and Best You friend, Dr. Lee Duffner. If you’ve tried cold compresses and been checked out for allergies and you’re still flying red-eye, Lee has these suggestions.

  • To combat eye dryness, try getting more omega-3 fatty acids into your diet with salmon, tuna, sardines, walnuts, and flax seeds — or just take 1,000 mg of fish oil a couple of times a day. (But don’t take more than 3,000 mg daily unless you’re under a doctor’s supervision.)
  • Germs on your hands or in your cosmetics can cause a mild infection, inflaming the edges of your eyelids. The best home treatment is to gently scrub the edges of the eyelids with a few drops of baby shampoo on a clean, wet washcloth. And replace your makeup every three to six months.
  • If none of this helps, talk with your doctor — your eyes may be so dry that you need prescription drops. In the meantime, try this eye-fooling tip from Los Angeles makeup artist Nina Davis: Use a navy-blue mascara — Christian Dior makes a nice one, she says — because navy blue makes the whites of your eyes look brighter!

Question: Sometimes when I exercise or even just laugh, I pee a little. Is there anything I can do?

Would it help with the mortification to know you’re not alone? About one in four adult women has what’s called stress urinary incontinence, which means that sudden pressure on your bladder — like laughing, coughing, or jumping — can overwhelm your pelvic floor muscles and lead to a few dribbles.

The best solution? Strengthen those muscles with Kegel exercises, says our friend Miriam Graham, a Maryland physical therapist specializing in pelvic floor health. Miriam recommends doing 30 or more Kegels every day. If your pelvic floor muscles are very weak, however, you might have a hard time finding them, let alone squeezing them. In that case, Miriam says, talk to a physical therapist about electric stimulation and biofeedback (both painless), which will help you isolate and strengthen the right muscles. Dr. Joseph Montella, who directs the urogynecology department at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, counsels patience. “It can take eight weeks to see results,” he tells us.

While you’re waiting, drink plenty of water, Miriam says. Skimping on the hydration can lead not only to incontinence-causing bladder infections but also stronger-smelling urine. Also, suggests Joe, you might try inserting a tampon before an activity that caused you to leak before — but place it a little lower than you would during your period. “It’s not to absorb the urine, but to compress the urethra,” he says. And that, sisters, is how to laugh, sneeze, and jump without fear.

Question: I thought I had a yeast infection, but an antifungal cream didn’t help. I’m careful about washing but I’m still itchy—and getting crankier by the minute.

From what you’re saying, you might not have a yeast infection at all — and all that scrubbing you’re doing might be making things worse. It all comes down to chemistry. Your private parts are comfortable only when they’re slightly acidic, but soap is what’s called a base in chemistry class — meaning that it’s the opposite of acid on the pH scale. So scouring yourself with soap can wipe out a lot of the acid-loving bacteria and fungi that normally keep it healthy, letting other less-friendly microbes move in. If the mix gets really off-kilter, you can end up with burning, itching, odor, or even pain with intercourse, says Miriam Graham, a physical therapist in Maryland who specializes in sexual health. A yeast infection is one way this can happen, but other kinds of overgrowth are possible — and some won’t respond to antifungal cream. What to do?

  • Use a pH-neutral soap (such as Cetaphil) when you wash, Miriam says — and don’t overdo it. “Focus on rinsing the area, not washing it,” she says. You want to lather up and wash around the area — then let water rinse the soap across your most private parts.
  • If you have itching or burning, Miriam offers one thing to try before you reach for antifungal creams: Soak a cotton ball in apple cider vinegar and warm water. In the shower, before you turn on the water, squeeze the cotton ball to let the liquid run over your nether region, bathing it thoroughly. “Apple cider vinegar is slightly acidic, so this should feel like tingly and soothing,” Miriam says. If you do have a yeast overgrowth, this apple cider vinegar bath won’t hurt. And if you have a less stubborn kind of overgrowth, it might be able to balance things out and get rid of the itch — without a bit of messy cream.

Question: My eyebrows have gotten really sparse and it’s changed the way I look. What can I do?

It’s true: Filled-in brows do make our faces look more symmetrical and balanced, says celebrity hair-and-makeup artist Sarah Potempa. First, be sure that your skimpy brows aren’t a sign of an underlying medical condition, such as a sluggish thyroid or an autoimmune disorder called alopecia areata, says Dr. Gregory Papadeas, a Denver dermatologist. But it’s probably just age: As we get older, hair grows back more slowly, so the effects of any over-zealous plucking are more apparent.

The simplest fix? A good eyebrow pencil that will give you lots of control, Sarah says. She likes Anastasia Perfect Brow Pencil, which sports a tiny crayon point on one side and a brow brush on the other. “Draw in little baby hairs with short strokes,” she says. “The goal is to be very subtle.” Then use the brush to smooth and slide natural hairs up and over the brow’s natural arch.

You could also try stimulating hair growth with men’s Rogaine, Gregory says. Lightly apply the liquid solution (not the foam) twice a day with a cotton swab to the brow area. Check with your doctor first, follow safety precautions, don’t exceed recommended dosages — and settle in for the long haul. “You’ll need to try it for a minimum of six months to decide if it works for you or not.”

Question: All my life, I’ve had ugly red bumps on the back of my upper arms. It looks like plucked chicken skin. I’m tired of never going sleeveless—what can I do?

You mean, besides thanking your parents? Those tiny bumps (they can be red or flesh-colored) are caused by a condition called keratosis pilaris, which is hereditary. The good news is that they don’t cause any damage except to your mood — they’re basically just plugs of dead skin cells that somehow forgot to slough off. The bad news is that no one knows quite why that happens, and there’s no real cure.

But you can make them much less noticeable, says Kenneth Beer, MD, a dermatologist in Palm Beach, Florida. And he should know, since everyone is legally required to go sleeveless in Palm Beach. First, they tend to be at their worst when your skin is dry, so stay away from extremely hot showers, since those are drying. Scrubbing with a loofah helps a little, but not as much as you’d hope.

What works best, Dr. Beer says: Twice a day, smooth on an over-the-counter skin lotion that contains glycolic or lactic acid, like AmLactin or DERMADoctor KP Duty Moisturizing Therapy for Dry Skin. Be patient. It can take as long as two months for your chicken skin to get really smooth. Want something that works faster? Ask your dermatologist for a Retin-A prescription. Whichever type of lotion you choose, keep using it—those bumps will come back if you give them the chance.

Question: My hair has gotten so thin that you can see my scalp in certain places. Do hair implants make sense?

Hair transplants aren’t just for men — and if you’ve got lots of empty turf up top, the treatment might indeed make sense for you. We’re not talking those weird-looking plugs or strips anymore, either. Today’s implants look more like your own fresh-grown hair, sprinkled naturally around the scalp. “We take skin from the back of the scalp and cut out little hair bundles. Then we place the individual bundles one by one into the thinning areas,” says Dr. Lisa Ishii, a plastic surgeon at Johns Hopkins Medical School who specializes in women’s hair loss.

It’s a painstaking process — a typical procedure involves 1,500 grafts and can take five hours — but you get to relax in the doctor’s office with a Valium and some scalp-numbing injections. You can gently wash your hair the next day. Full regrowth takes four to six months. (Be warned, though: If you don’t have enough hair on the back of your head to redistribute, this option isn’t for you.)

Question: Whenever I’m under a lot of stress, I get a really awful cold sore on my lip that becomes a huge ugly scab. Can anything help?

When you run yourself ragged, cold sores are your body’s way of saying, “I give up!” They’re caused by the oral herpes virus. You probably were infected when you were a kid, and the virus has been in your body ever since. When you get stressed, the virus grabs the opportunity to sneak around your immune system and start multiplying, and the result is a nasty, tingly blister. And you don’t even need to be run-down to get one — sun exposure, a cold, even your period can trigger the virus.

The best treatment? Prevention, says Dr. Richard Usatine, a professor of family medicine at University of Texas Health Science Center. Give your immune system a fighting chance by remembering to exercise, sleep, and eat right. If you catch it early, you can use medication to speed the healing. “Abreva is the only over-the-counter medicine that works,” Richard says. If you start treatment within 12 hours of first tingle and apply the cream five times a day, you may speed up the healing process by a day. (Usually it takes four or so days to heal and about a week to completely go away.)

If you get more than three or four cold sores a year, or if there’s a fever and a lot of swelling, talk to your doctor, he adds. There are prescription meds that help prevent the sores. In the meantime, you may just have to grin and bear it. Or, ouch — maybe not grin. These cold sore home remedies might be of some help, too.

Question: Why am I suddenly plagued by hairy toes?

Consider it one of the joys of aging. At around 40 years old, our estrogen levels start to drop, male hormones surge, and we’re left sprouting hair in unexpected places. Flick at it with a razor, if you like, but if you’re not much on stubble, laser hair removal is an option with permanent results. (You might need more sessions depending on your coloring and, ahem, sheer quantity.) Or, from the couldn’t-hurt-to-try file, sip a mint tea. In a 2007 Turkish study, women with excessive body hair lowered their male hormone levels and boosted estrogen by drinking two cups of the herbal tea daily for five days.

Question: I had a painful, embarrassing boil. How can I prevent another one?

A boil is a hair follicle that’s become infected with the highly contagious Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. These “staph” bugs live on the surface of human skin and even in our respiratory systems. Normally, the immune system keeps them in check. You can’t wipe them out, but there’s plenty you can do to prevent their spread.

  • Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and water, and use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer gel when you can’t get to a sink.
  • Bathe or shower daily and after using a hot tub, a swimming pool, a sauna, or a steam room. Use a mild antibacterial soap and clean towels and washcloths.
  • Don’t use oils, oily moisturizers, or greasy sunscreen — they can trap bacteria. Opt for oil-free lotions and sunscreens instead.
  • If boils return in an area that you shave, use a clean razor blade every time you shave. That means replacing the blade or soaking it in alcohol before reuse. Or opt for a hair-removal cream instead.
  • Rinse scrapes and cuts, apply an antibiotic ointment, and keep them covered with clean bandages until healed.
  • Avoid using powder in those areas that seem to build up sweat. The powder holds onto moisture, which breeds bacteria.

Question: There’s a wart on my finger. Is it contagious?

Yes, but not very. All warts are infections caused by one of over 100 varieties of the human papilloma virus (HPV). In contrast to the highly contagious HPV types that cause genital warts, the types behind common warts of the hands, fingers, and fingernails are much less so. Still, direct contact could spread the virus to another person or to another part of your body. Most warts disappear within a few years, but it may be worthwhile removing yours sooner, with an over-the-counter remedy containing 17 percent salicylic acid. In one review of 13 wart-removal studies, salicylic acid cured 75 percent of warts.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest