How to treat everyday ailments at home

Below are 10 of the most common minor ailments seen by GPs.

Find out the most effective ways to treat things like heartburn and a blocked nose at home, and save yourself a trip to the GP surgery.

Remember: you can also get advice from your local pharmacist for lots of health issues, including when to visit your GP. And there's no need for an appointment.

  1. Back pain 
  2. Dermatitis
  3. Heartburn and indigestion
  4. Nasal congestion (blocked nose)
  5. Constipation
  6. Migraines
  7. Coughs
  8. Acne
  9. Sprains and strains
  10. Headaches

1. Back pain

Most cases of back pain can be treated with over-the-counter medicines and self care aids and techniques.

Self care tips:

  • Take paracetamol or ibuprofen for pain relief. If taking ibuprofen, make sure you take it with food. Read the patient information leaflet before taking any medicine.
  • Hot or cold compression packs, available from larger pharmacies, can also help with the pain.
  • You can make your own cold compression pack by wrapping a bag of frozen food in a towel.
  • Place a small firm cushion beneath your knees when you're sleeping on your side. Or use several firm pillows to prop up your knees when lying on your back.
  • It's important to remain mobile by carrying on with your day-to-day activities, including work, as much as possible.
  • Stay positive: studies show that if you keep positive, you're likely to make a quicker recovery.
  • Take care when lifting objects.

If your back pain is no better after at least two weeks of self care or you develop other symptoms, your back pain gets worse or you need further advice, speak to your pharmacist or call NHS 111. They can tell you if you need to contact your GP. 

See more information on back pain.

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2. Dermatitis

Dermatitis (inflamed skin) can be caused by an irritant or allergy.

Self care tips:

  • Avoid scratching. Scratching may damage your skin and allow bacteria to get in, leading to infection. It may help to keep your nails short. You could also try rubbing the area with your fingers instead.
  • Try to identify the irritant or allergen so you can avoid coming into contact with it again.
  • Moisturising creams called emollients can help calm a mild flare-up of dermatitis. They're available from pharmacies and supermarkets. Unperfumed ones are better for dermatitis. 
  • Use a soap substitute, such as E45 or Diprobase, instead of soap.

If the rash doesn't clear up after using these self care techniques, speak to your pharmacist or see your GP.

For more information on dealing with dermatitis, check out our dermatitis and eczema pages.

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3. Heartburn and indigestion

Digestive complaints like heartburn, indigestion and bloating are very common. You can usually treat them with simple changes to your lifestyle and over-the-counter remedies.

Self care tips:

  • For short-term relief, your pharmacist can recommend antacid medicines to neutralise stomach acid, or alginates to protect your food pipe (oesophagus) from acid.
  • Lose weight – being overweight can contribute to heartburn.
  • Stop or cut down smoking and/or alcohol.
  • Have your last meal of the day at least three hours before going to bed.
  • Try raising the head of your bed by a few inches – simply raising your head by using an extra pillow won't have the same beneficial effect.
  • Make a note of any food or drink that seems to make your indigestion worse, and try to avoid them.

Mild tummy pain usually lasts two to four days. If the pain or bloating persists, see your GP.

Find more information in our section on heartburn, indigestion and digestive health.

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4. Blocked nose

In most cases, a blocked nose will clear within a few days without treatment once the body fights off the underlying infection.

If you've got a virus, such as a cold or flu, your GP can't offer you anything more than a pharmacist can provide. Antibiotics won't help.

Self care tips:

  • Over-the-counter decongestant medicines can help relieve a blocked nose by reducing swollen blood vessels in your nose. Don't use decongestants for more than five to seven days at a time. Using them for any longer can make your symptoms worse.
  • Inhaling steam from a bowl of hot – but not boiling – water may soften and loosen the build-up of mucus in your nose. You can add menthol crystals or eucalyptus oil to the water if you like.

If symptoms persist, speak to your pharmacist or see your GP.

See more on treating a blocked nose.

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5. Constipation

If you're constipated (can't poo), changing your diet may be all that's needed to ease it.

Self care tips:

  • If your constipation is causing pain, take a painkiller, such as paracetamol.
  • Add more fibre to your diet, such as fruit, vegetables, wholewheat pasta, wholemeal bread, seeds, nuts and oats. This can take anything from a few days up to four weeks to have an effect.
  • If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and get constipated, it's recommended that you increase the amount of soluble fibre you have. Foods that contain soluble fibre include oats, barley, bananas, apples, carrots, potatoes and golden linseeds.
  • Make sure you're drinking enough water – see Water, drinks and your health
  • Regular exercise will reduce your risk of getting constipation.
  • If diet and lifestyle changes don't help, try an over-the-counter laxative. Ask your pharmacist's advice and follow the instructions on the packet or leaflet carefully.

If over-the-counter laxatives don't ease your symptoms, see your GP.

Find more information on treating constipation.

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6. Migraines

A migraine is a headache that's strong enough to stop you from carrying on with daily life.

Self care tips:

  • Watch your stress levels. Research shows that reducing stress can lower the frequency of migraine attacks by about a third – see a simple breathing exercise for stress.
  • Avoid foods and drinks that may trigger a migraine, such as caffeine.
  • Keep your blood sugar level steady by having regular healthy meals and snacks.
  • Strenuous exercise can trigger migraines in some people, but regular exercise may help prevent them.
  • Think about keeping a migraine diary, noting headaches, possible triggers, any over-the-counter or prescribed medicines you're taking for headaches and (for women) your menstrual cycle. 
  • Ask your pharmacist for advice. They may recommend over-the-counter painkillers. These are usually more effective if taken at the first signs of a migraine attack. 
  • Combination medicines, which contain painkillers and anti-sickness medicines for migraine, can be bought without a prescription. Always get your pharmacist's advice first.

If your migraines are severe, you may need stronger migraine-specific medicines that are only available on prescription from your GP.

Find more information on treating migraines.

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7. Coughs

Coughs are usually caused by viruses such as the common cold or flu. They usually clear up without treatment once your immune system has beaten the virus.

Antibiotics won't help with coughs caused by viruses.

Self care tips:

  • Drink plenty of fluids – water is best.
  • There's no evidence that over-the-counter cough mixtures work. You can make your own homemade cough mixture by mixing honey and lemon in hot water.
  • Try sucking lozenges.
  • Some over-the-counter medicines can help relieve cold or flu symptoms, such as a blocked nose, fever and headache. Ask your pharmacist for advice.
  • If you smoke, try to stop smoking. See some tips on stopping smoking or get advice from your pharmacy team.

See your GP if you've had a cough for more than three weeks after a viral infection, or your cough is progressively getting worse.

Find more information on treating coughs.

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8. Acne

Acne is usually most noticeable on the face, but can also appear on the back, shoulders and buttocks.

Self care tips:

  • Avoid picking or squeezing spots as this can lead to scarring.
  • Use a mild face wash, which can be bought from a pharmacy, with lukewarm water. Don't wash more than twice a day and avoid too much scrubbing. 
  • Use make-up that is oil-free or water-based. Choose products that are labelled as non-comedogenic (shouldn't cause blackheads or whiteheads) or non-acnegenic (shouldn't cause acne).
  • There's no evidence that certain foods, such as fried foods or chocolate, can cause or aggravate acne.  
  • There's no evidence that sunlight helps acne.
  • Mild acne can be treated using gels or creams, such as benzoyl peroxide. Ask your pharmacist for advice.

If over-the-counter treatments don't help, treatments are available on prescription from your GP.

Find more information on treating acne.

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9. Sprains and strains

A sprain is when you injure a ligament in one of your joints, such as your wrist or ankle. A strain is caused by overstretching or tearing muscle fibres, usually in your back or legs.

Most mild to moderate sprains and strains can be treated at home using the PRICE technique.

Self care tips:

  • PRICE stands for protection, rest, ice, compression and elevation. For information on applying PRICE, read sprains and strains: treatments.
  • For the first 72 hours after a sprain or muscle strain, you should avoid heat (such as hot baths), alcohol, running (or any other kind of exercise) and massage.
  • For sprains: Try to keep gently moving your sprained joint, unless the sprain is severe.
  • For strains: Try not to use the affected muscle(s) too much for a few days.
  • If you feel pain from a strain or sprain, take some paracetamol. If this doesn't help, speak to your pharmacist. Painkilling creams and gels are also available over the counter.

Most sprains and strains start to get better after about three to four days. 

Get medical help straight away if your joint looks different from usual, is difficult or impossible to move, or you feel numbness or tingling.

Find more information on sprains and strains

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10. Headaches

Most headaches aren't serious, and are usually relieved by medicines, relaxation techniques and lifestyle changes.

Self care tips:

  • For pain relief, paracetamol usually works well to relieve a tension-type headache. It's best to take a full dose as soon as the headache starts. A second dose of paracetamol can be taken after four hours if necessary. No more than eight 500mg paracetamol tablets should be taken in one day.
  • Anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen, can also help with headaches.
  • Be aware that taking painkillers more than two or three times a week can actually cause headaches. Read more about painkiller headaches.
  • Regular exercise and relaxation may help prevent tension headaches. 

Most headaches will clear within a few hours. Contact your GP or call NHS 111 if your headache gets worse, if you get them more often, or you develop other symptoms, such as a stiff neck or sensitivity to light.

For more information, read about headache triggers and the different types of headache.

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Page last reviewed: 13/10/2016

Next review due: 13/10/2019

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