6 Embarrasing Health Questions Answered

Our medical experts answer embarrassing questions you've been afraid to ask your doctor. Turns out you're not alone!

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Q. Is it okay to see my doctor's notes?


A. Not only do you have the right to read your medical records, but reviewing them can make you feel more in control of your health. "Many people don't remember everything they discussed with their doctor," says Jan Walker, R.N., a researcher at Harvard Medical School, "so it's particularly helpful to have the notes from the visit to refer to." At the end of your appointment, request a printout from your physician or ask the receptionist to send it once your file has been updated.

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Q. The inside of my ear is itchy. What could be causing this? Cleaning with a cotton swab seems to help temporarily.


A. Your fix may be worsening your problem. "Clearing wax can cause ears to dry out and feel irritated," says Steven Rauch, M.D., an otologist in Boston. "Plus, swabs tend to push wax deeper in the canal, creating blockages." Apply a dab of baby oil or an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream inside your ear canal with your finger once a day until the itchiness disappears.

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Q. I have a painful ingrown toenail. Can I take care of it on my own?


A. No. Trying to treat it yourself can be extremely painful and may cause an infection. Instead, schedule an appointment with a podiatrist, who will numb your toe and cut out the ingrown nail. From now on, trim your nails straight across and avoid shoes that squish your toes. If the problem recurs, your doctor may decide to apply a drop of liquid phenol or use a laser to kill the root of the ingrown portion.

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Q. I keep hearing about bedbugs. How can I prevent them from invading my home?


A. Bedbugs are showing up in cities and small towns across the country. Though the pests don't carry diseases, they may bite you while you sleep, causing itchy red welts. To keep them at bay, inspect any pre-owned furniture before bringing it home, and when staying in hotels, place your luggage on racks or in dressers instead of on the bed or floor. At home, regularly check all your mattresses and box springs (especially along the seams) for tiny brown, purple or black spots, which are bedbug droppings. If you suspect you have an infestation, call a pest control agency immediately.

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Q. Can gum really get stuck in your body if you swallow it?


A. It's just a myth. "Some of my patients think that because gum is 'indigestible' it will sit in your stomach for years," says Bernard Kaminetsky, M.D., medical director of MDVP, a national network of primary care physicians. "But actually, the opposite happens. Because the rubbery substance can't be broken down by enzymes, it zips through you within a few days, just like fiber."

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Q. I have a bunion that's begun to bother me. Is surgery the only thing that can help?


A. "It depends," says Marlene Reid, D.P.M., spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association. "Bunions in the early stages can be treated with anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy and rest." However, if you notice a change in symptoms (like increased irritation, redness or pain), it's usually time to consider surgery. Get the best care by seeing a podiatrist. She'll be trained in the latest treatments and can prescribe a follow-up plan, using custom orthotics, if you do opt for surgery.