Home remedies for common conditions

Common health complaints, such as coughs, colds and headaches, account for one out of every five GP appointments in England.

Yet many of these can be treated quicker and just as effectively at home using self care and over-the-counter medicines bought from pharmacies or supermarkets.

Below are the top 10 conditions, listed in decreasing order, that account for 75% of GP consultations for minor ailments.

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

Find out what are the most effective treatments for dealing with each these conditions at home. Get advice on when to seek help from a health professional.

1. Back pain

One in five people visit their GP in any given year because of back pain. Most cases of back pain can be treated with over-the-counter medication and self care aids and techniques.

Self care tips:

  • Use paracetamol or ibuprofen for pain relief.
  • 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. This may ease your symptoms.
  • It’s important to remain mobile by continuing, within reason, your day-to-day activities, including work.
  • Remain positive. Studies show that if you keep positive, you’re likely to make a quicker recovery.

If your back pain is no better after at least two weeks of self care, see your GP.

For more information on dealing with back pain, see Live Well: back pain and Health A-Z: back pain treatments.

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2. Dermatitis

Dermatitis, which includes conditions such as mild eczema, occurs when your body comes into contact with a substance that irritates your skin or causes an allergic reaction.

Self care tips:

  • Avoid scratching. Scratching may damage your skin and allow bacteria to get in, leading to infection.
  • Try to identify the irritant or allergen, and avoid coming into contact with it.
  • Moisturising creams called emollients can help to calm a mild flare-up of dermatitis. They're available from pharmacies.

If the rash doesn’t clear up after using the self care techniques, 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 such as heartburn, indigestion and bloating are very common. They're usually treatable with simple changes to your lifestyle and over-the-counter remedies.

Self care tips:

  • For short-term relief, a pharmacist will recommend antacid medicines or alginates.
  • Diet, excess weight, smoking, alcohol, and going to bed on a full stomach can all contribute to indigestion.
  • Make a note of any food or drink that seems to make your indigestion worse, and try to avoid them. This may mean eating less rich, spicy and fatty foods, and cutting down on drinks that contain caffeine, such as tea, coffee and cola.

Most mild abdominal pain usually lasts two to four days. If the pain persists, see your GP.

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

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4. Nasal congestion

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, a doctor can't offer you anything more than a pharmacist can provide.

Self care tips:

  • Over-the-counter decongestant medicines can help to relieve a blocked nose by reducing the swelling of the blood vessels in your nose.
  • Inhaling steam from a bowl of hot (but not boiling) water may soften and loosen the build-up of mucus in your nose. Adding menthol crystals or eucalyptus oil to the water may ease your blocked nose and catarrh.

Don’t use decongestants for more than five to seven days at a time. This is because they only provide short-term relief. Using them for any longer can make your symptoms worse. If symptoms persist, see your GP.

Check out Health A-Z for more information on treating nasal congestion.

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5. Constipation

If you have difficulty passing stools, changing your diet may be all that's needed to cure your constipation without taking medication.

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.
  • Make sure you're drinking enough water. Cut down on caffeine, alcohol and fizzy drinks.
  • Regular exercise will greatly reduce your risk of getting constipation.
  • If diet and lifestyle changes don’t help, try an oral laxative, these are available from pharmacies and supermarkets.

If over-the-counter laxatives don’t ease the symptoms, see your GP. They may prescribe laxatives on a regular basis, but they should always supervise this.

Find more information on treating constipation.

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6. Migraines

A migraine is a recurrent headache that's strong enough to stop you from carrying on with daily life. There's no cure for migraines.

Self care tips:

  • Over-the-counter painkillers are usually the first treatment for migraine. They're more effective if taken at the first signs of a migraine attack. 
  • Anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen are more effective painkillers for some people.
  • Combination medicines, which contain painkillers and anti-sickness medicines for migraine, can be bought without prescription.

If your migraines are severe, you may need stronger migraine-specific medication that's available only on prescription.

Find more information on treating migraines.

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7. Coughs

Coughs, caused by viruses such as the common cold or by flu, usually clear up without treatment after several days once your immune system has defeated the virus. Antibiotics aren’t used for treating coughs.

Self care tips:

  • Drink plenty of fluids – water is best. Make sure you drink something non-alcoholic at least every hour.
  • Make your own homemade cough mixture by mixing honey and lemon in hot water.
  • There’s little evidence that over-the-counter cough medicines actually work, although some of the ingredients may help to treat symptoms associated with a cough, such as a blocked nose or fever.

See your GP if you've had a cough for more than two 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 consists of spots and painful bumps on the skin. It's 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 cause inflammation and lead to scarring.
  • Use a mild face wash, which can be bought from a pharmacy.
  • There’s no evidence that wearing make-up or that certain foods, such as fried foods or chocolate, can cause or aggravate acne.
  • Acne is caused by bacteria building up on your skin. The less you touch your skin, the less bacteria will spread on your skin.
  • Mild acne is treated using gels or creams such as benzoyl peroxide. Ask a pharmacist for advice.

If over-the-counter treatments don't help, treatments are available on prescription. Your GP can assess how bad your acne is and discuss the options with you.

Find more information on treating acne.

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9. Sprains and strains

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 Health A-Z: 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 and massage.
  • Try to stay mobile with a sprained joint, unless you have a severe ankle sprain. This is because the injury will heal quicker if you move the joint as soon as you're able to.
  • If you feel pain from a strain or sprain, use paracetamol in the first instance. If paracetamol doesn’t help, a stronger painkiller such as codeine, which is available only on prescription, may be needed.

The length of time of recovery from a sprain or a strain will depend on the severity of the injury. Seek immediate medical treatment if your joint looks different from usual, is difficult or impossible to move, or you feel numbness or tingling.

Find more information on treating sprains and strains

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10. Headaches

Most headaches aren’t life threatening, 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 a headache starts. A second dose can be taken after four hours if necessary.
  • Anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen can be more effective than paracetamol for some people.
  • Drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids, and avoid caffeine-based drinks, such as coffee, tea, and cola. 

Most headaches will clear within a few hours. However, contact your GP or call NHS Direct on 0845 4647 if you develop new symptoms, your headache gets worse, or you're still concerned or need further advice.

For more information, read treating headaches and living with headaches.

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Page last reviewed: 13/10/2012

Next review due: 13/10/2014

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