Symptoms: Sneezing, itchy nose and congestion
What It Means: Seasonal Allergies
Depending on where you live, seasonal allergies may crop up in March and September, when the pollen count is at its peak, says Michael Blaiss, MD, an allergist and clinical professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
How to Nip It: When you know allergy season is around the corner, start preparing early by reducing your exposure to pollen. "Though you can't completely avoid it, you can make some everyday changes to minimize the effects of allergies before they get out of hand," says Dr. Blaiss. During the fall and spring months, keep the windows and doors of your house and car closed so pollen won't sneak its way in. If you're working in the yard, hit the shower as soon as you're inside to get rid of any pollen on your body. Since pollen is highest early in the morning and at dusk, Dr. Blaiss adds, go for a jog or perform other outdoor activities during another time of the day. To combat congestion, try a saline nasal rinse, which can decrease symptoms by washing away pollen in your nose.
Symptoms: Aching, tingling or numbness in your wrist and hand—especially in the first three fingers
What It Means: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
"Carpal tunnel occurs when the median or main nerve in the hand becomes compressed thanks to repetitive fle or extending of the tendons", says Jack Stern, MD, a neurosurgeon in White Plains, New York. "Typing is one of the biggest causes of carpal tunnel because most people hold their wrists in the wrong position," says Dr. Stern. Symptoms may get worse during menstruation and may wake you up at night if you sleep with your wrists flexed.
How to Nip It: Once you feel the first twinges of carpal tunnel, give yourself a little lifestyle makeover. Small changes such as sitting at your desk with correct posture and wrist positioning can eliminate symptoms before they get worse, says Dr. Stern. Invest in a comfy gel pad to rest your wrists on as you type; it'll help them stay parallel to your fingers. Wearing a wrist splint at night can also keep your wrists straight. Do gentle exercises to stretch and strengthen your hands and try an OTC pain reliever like ibuprofen or naproxen to take the edge off.
Symptoms: A dull, burning or sharp ache in one area of the back
What It Means: Strained Back Muscles
This common cause of back pain is often due to incorrect or heavy lifting or can occur after a sudden spastic movement. "The back doesn't have as much elasticity as we get older, so injuries are often more common," says Dr. Stern.
How to Nip It: Start stretching! Simple exercises as well as low-impact activities, like walking or swimming, will strengthen your back and combat chronic symptoms, says Dr. Stern. Abdominal exercises also work to build muscle in your core area to give your back more support. If your pain is acute, ice the area immediately to decrease swelling. OTC pain relievers such as ibuprofen can make the discomfort more manageable.
Symptoms: Cramps, bloating and a sharp jab of pain in your abdomen.
What It Means: Gas Pain
Thanks to acidic foods, swallowing too much air, or stress, abnormal contractions may occur in the intestinal wall, which causes pains in the stomach or back, according to Joseph W. Stubbs, MD, FACP, president of the American College of Physicians.
How to Nip It: To ease the onset of gas pain, apply a hot water bottle to the area or soak in a warm bath. Or try taking a long walk or bike ride—exercise relaxes the intestine and gets things moving along. "Gas pains usually aren't serious, but they can become very uncomfortable if not treated right away," says Dr. Stubbs. "Overall dietary modifications are often the key to beating them altogether," he says. Keep a food diary to record what you're eating each day so you'll be able to pinpoint the culprit of your discomfort. Also, load up on foods with good bacteria and active cultures, like yogurt, which helps calm your stomach.
Symptoms: Sudden contractions or spasms in your muscles (particularly in your legs) that produce aches and pains.
What It Means: Muscle Cramps
"As we age, muscles start to wither or atrophy, and they can't work as hard or as fast as they used to," says Dr. Stubbs. Muscle cramps are most common in the spring and summer, when you take your exercise routine outdoors. "Sweating depletes the body's source of essential fluids or electrolytes—potassium, magnesium and calcium—and you're prone to cramping," he says.
How to Nip It: If you feel a cramp coming on, drink up! Especially in warmer temperatures, make sure you're hydrating often with water and an electrolyte replenishing fluid, like Gatorade, to keep potassium, magnesium and calcium levels up, says Dr. Stubbs. As soon as a cramp happens, gently massage and stretch the area to alleviate the pain. You can also apply heat to tight muscles or cold to tender ones. Stretch before and after workouts to lengthen the muscle fibers and prevent cramps.
Symptoms: Pain in your lower abdomen, bloating, moodiness and tender breasts
What It Means: Premenstrual Syndrome
About three out of four menstruating women experience some form of PMS in the days before their period, according to the Mayo Clinic. The causes include changes in hormones and fluctuations of serotonin (a brain chemical that regulates mood).
How to Nip It: "Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) taken before or at the time of your period can ease cramping and breast tenderness, and can reduce the heaviness of your period," says Dr. Stubbs. Try eating smaller, more frequent meals and fewer salty foods to minimize bloating, he adds. Also, bone up on calcium—studies have shown that it may reduce the physical and psychological symptoms of PMS.
Symptoms: Bloating, gas and compacted stools that are difficult to pass
What It Means: Constipation
"Common causes include a poor diet without enough fiber, dehydration, lack of exercise, bad bacteria living in the intestinal tract, or changes in your daily routine, such as travel," says Steven Lamm, MD, an internist based in New York City. "More serious causes could include functional issues in the bowel or colon," he adds. If you've passed fewer than three stools in a week, chances are, you're backed up.
How to Nip It: Once you feel you're constipated, hit the gym. Physical activity increases bowel function and decreases constipation, says Dr. Lamm. To help loosen stools and get regular again, drink water and eat fiber-filled foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole-grain cereals and breads. Avoid foods that are high in fat and sugar but low in fiber, such as ice cream, cheese and processed foods—they may worsen constipation. Try a probiotic supplement like Culturelle, which naturally replaces the bad bacteria in the digestive tract and helps to maintain regularity, he says. OTC laxatives should only be used as a last resort since they can become addictive.
Symptoms: Aching, throbbing pain in the mouth that's often brought on by cold, hot or sugary foods
What It Means: Toothache
"Tooth decay is the biggest cause of toothaches for most people," says Kimberly Harms, DDS, consumer advisor for the American Dental Association. "Acids from the bacteria in plaque begin to erode the enamel on your teeth and produce a cavity," she says. The initial signs of tooth decay come in the form of pain when you eat something sweet, very cold or very hot. If left untreated, it can cause bone loss or a swollen jaw, says Dr. Harms. Toothaches can also be the result of grinding/clenching the teeth or an old filling that's wearing out.
How to Nip It: "The first line of defense is prevention," says Dr. Harms. Brush twice per day with a fluoridated toothpaste and floss once a day. See your dentist every six months for checkups and cleanings. Try a night guard to curb teeth grinding or desensitizing toothpaste to help decrease teeth sensitivity. An OTC pain reliever, or a topical antiseptic with benzocaine applied directly to the tooth and gum, can dull the ache. "Once you have a toothache, the only way to get rid of it is to see your dentist for treatment," Dr. Harms says.
Symptoms: Sore throat, nasal congestion, coughing and achiness
What It Means: Common Cold
The common cold is a viral infection of your nose and throat. Symptoms of colds vary because there are more than 200 different viruses that cause them. Adults often catch colds two to four times a year.
How to Nip It: Some studies show that taking zinc, vitamin C and echinacea when symptoms first appear can shorten the length of the cold. It's important to load up on fluids like water, juice and tea—hydration replaces liquids lost from mucus production, says Dr. Stubbs. And try some chicken soup! Your mom's best home remedy actually has cold-fighting benefits: It speeds up the movement of mucus through your nose, which minimizes congestion. An OTC medication like Sudafed can help control symptoms so you don't develop a more serious condition like an earache, sinusitis or strep throat, says Dr. Stubbs.
Symptoms: A tightness or pressure all over the head that can be worse in the scalp, temples or back of the neck
What It Means: Tension Headache
This type of headache is the most common form, says Robert S. Kunkel, MD, consultant for the Center for Headache and Pain at the Cleveland Clinic. Tension headaches occur when the neck and scalp muscles become tense as a result of stress, depression, head injury, anxiety or jaw clenching, adds Dr. Kunkel. But smaller things can also cause headaches, like certain foods, holding your head in the same position at your computer for too long, staying in a room that's too cold or sleeping with your neck awkwardly positioned.
How to Nip It: To immediately ease any pain, put a heat or ice pack on your head and neck or take a hot shower. When you get a headache, write down exactly when the pain occurred and what you were eating or drinking during the hours before. "Identifying specific triggers will help prevent a tension headache from becoming chronic," says Dr. Kunkel. If you clench or grind your teeth, wearing a bite guard will take the stress off and lessen the tension in the jaw muscles, he adds.