Take responsibility for your own health and your family’s and you’ll feel so much better, says Dr Melanie Wynne-Jones

Be your own doctor

Do you know when to be your own doctor? © iStock

NHS Self Care Week aims to help people understand what they can do to better look after both their own health and that of their family members.

We’re already keen to be involved in our medical care, and as 80% of all care is self-care, the NHS couldn’t cope if we didn’t take some responsibility for ourselves. But, although we do need to know how to look after ourselves, and when and where to get help, we’re not completely on our own.

What’s your problem?

Every new symptom means we have to decide whether to ignore it or take action – and as we get an average of four symptoms every fortnight (feeling tired/run-down, headaches and joint pain top the list), that’s a lot of decisions!

And it’s only natural to worry if they’re unusual, drag on, affect daily activities or resemble serious diseases that we’ve read about or have affected someone we know.

But we can often save time and money if we self-treat or leave symptoms to get better by themselves, as well as saving one of the 57 million annual GP consultations for minor ailments (an hour a day per GP!) that make it harder to get appointments when we really need them.

Self-care also means trying to follow a healthy lifestyle, ensuring we have all our recommended immunisations and deciding whether to have NHS Health Checks, mammograms and other cancer-screening tests.

Treating ourselves

We need a home medicine cupboard for acute self-limiting illnesses (see tips box, right), and to know how long they’re expected to last – for example, a week for a sore throat, 10 days for a cold and up to three weeks for a simple cough.

Avoiding unnecessary antibiotics will also reduce allergic reactions and bacterial resistance (superbugs).

If we have a chronic medical condition, such as diabetes or lung disease, we’ll receive around four hours of NHS attention a year. So we need to agree self-management plans with our doctors – how to look after ourselves, warning signs and when/how quickly to seek medical advice – and perhaps share this with our relatives or carers.

Who can advise?

If we’re not sure whether to self-care, we can ask. Pharmacists can diagnose and treat minor illness (or redirect us to our GPs). We can also ring 111 for advice, or our practice nurse/doctors may provide telephone consultations.

Don’t forget to mention previous/existing illnesses, current medicines, allergies, recent foreign travel and so on, as these may affect their advice.

Many websites, including nhs.uk and patient.co.uk, also provide information on symptoms, diseases, prevention, self-care and when to seek help, although this is general advice only, and may not be right for us.

When should you seek medical help?

Seek help immediately (999, Emergency Department or your GP) if you or someone else has severe pain or breathlessness, palpitations, bleeding that’s coming from inside or won’t stop, a rash that doesn’t fade when pressed with a glass, loss of consciousness, speech, or use of a limb, facial weakness, high fever, acute confusion or psychiatric disturbance – in fact, anything that could quickly be very serious.

For less urgent problems, see your GP about symptoms that don’t settle quickly or are getting worse, new lumps, bumps and moles, or unexplained pain, weight loss or fatigue. Also, it’s usually better to call sooner rather than later if the person is elderly or frail, a child, has other medical problems or is otherwise vulnerable.

6 Medicine cupboard essentials

1  Pharmacy painkiller, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.

2  Antacid liquid or tablets such as Gaviscon for the treatment of heartburn, indigestion or acid reflux.

3  An antihistamine cream and/or tablet for itchy allergic rashes and insect bites.

4 Decongestant nasal spray, tablets and/or chest rub for a cold, sinusitis and coughs.

5 Rehydration sachets for diarrhoea, plus loperamide for relief from diarrhoea during essential travel.

6 Check these will mix safely with the patient’s other medicines or conditions.