Most uncomfortable symptoms can easily be treated—if you speak up.
Unflattering smells, sounds, and leaks common after age 60 share one identical symptom: They’re so embarrassing that the majority of people would rather suffer in silence than discuss the condition with their doctor.
But remaining mum about humiliating problems may affect your overall health. Plus, most uncomfortable symptoms can easily be treated—all you need to do is pipe up.
Here are a few health issues you should always discuss with your doctor. It may be awkward, but no more so than living with the problem.
1. Chronic Bad Breath
Occasional bad breath is a result of something you ate, like garlic bread or onion soup. But halitosis, or chronic bad breath? “That’s coming from the mouth—the bacteria on the tongue or gums or between the teeth,” says Matthew Messina, D.D.S., an assistant professor at Ohio State University College of Dentistry in Columbus and a consumer advisor for the American Dental Association.
Dry mouth exacerbates the stench because the bacteria that flourish in desert-like environments tend to be more aggressive and malodorous, he adds.
Here are a few things you can do to combat bad breath on your own:
Practice good dental hygiene: That means brushing for two minutes, twice per day; flossing once per day to get the stinky bacteria that toothbrush bristles miss; and brushing or scraping your tongue (hold the tip with your nondominant hand while you brush to avoid a gag reflex). “It’s not really fancy, but good oral hygiene can produce great results in reducing the number of bacteria in your mouth,” Dr. Messina says.
Stay hydrated: Drinking more water improves saliva flow, which is important because it moistens your mouth and helps flush out bacteria. Dr. Messina’s recommendation: “Drink a glass of water before you go to bed or when you first get up in the morning.” Staying hydrated has many benefits, beyond avoiding dragon breath. Check out our guide to five sneaky signs you’re dehydrated—and drink up!
Toss the cancer sticks: “Smoking really contributes to bad breath,” Dr. Messina says. “The tars and nicotine coat the surface of the teeth, which allow other things to stick to it more.” Remember: No matter your age, it’s never too late to quit smoking.
Additionally, it’s important to go to the dentist at least every six months for professional cleanings. Check with your health plan for benefits information. Plus, look for dental, hearing, and vision discounts here.
While you’re in the dentist’s chair, voice any concerns about your breath. Your dentist can recommend prescription mouthwash, talk to your doctor about switching medications that cause dry mouth, or even help detect more serious health issues.
While most of the time bad breath is caused by bacteria in the mouth, it can also be a sign of a systemic gastrointestinal issue like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or acid reflux, Dr. Messina says. The bottom line: “Bad breath is definitely something we don’t want to just ignore.”
Find out what else your mouth can reveal about your health here.
2. Excessive Sweating
If you sweat a lot—especially when it’s not hot or you haven’t been exercising—bring it up with your doctor. He or she can help determine if your sweating is caused by a condition like menopause, a side effect of medication you’re taking, or due to hyperhidrosis, a disorder in which your sweat glands produce more sweat than necessary to cool your body.
“A lot of times hyperhidrosis involves sweating so much, especially on your face and scalp, that you’re dripping from your head,” says Malcolm Brock, M.D., medical director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sweat Disorders in Baltimore. “People are constantly asking, ‘Are you OK?’ and you’re sometimes soaking through, or ruining, clothes,” he says.
You may also sweat from your hands and feet—in addition to your underarms—so much that you start to feel uncomfortable in social situations. “Most people tend to suffer in silence,” Dr. Brock says. But that’s not necessary. There are a variety of treatments that can solve the issue, including drying creams, oral medications, Botox shots, or even surgery to cut the sympathetic nerve, which controls the sweat reaction.
3. Urinary Incontinence
Bladder leaks come in a few varieties: the “sneeze-and-oops” leaks caused by increased pressure on the urethra (stress incontinence), the “gotta-go” urgency that leaves you frantically looking for a bathroom (overactive bladder), or a combo of the two (mixed incontinence).
Both stress incontinence and overactive bladder are more common in women than men. Fifty percent of women ages 65 and older sometimes experience leaks, but most stress incontinence in men is due to another health issue, according to the Urology Care Foundation. About 40 percent of women and 30 percent of men experience overactive bladder.
Whether you’re dealing with a few occasional drips or regularly soaking through your knickers, it’s not something you just need to live with. “No one wants to admit that their body is not under control,” says Michael Kennelly, M.D., medical director of the Charlotte Continence Center at Carolinas Medical Center in North Carolina. But discussing the issue with your doctor is the first step to finding the right solution for you. Possibilities include pelvic floor exercises, medications, medical devices, or even surgery.
There are also lifestyle changes to consider: If you’re overweight, losing excess pounds can help with stress incontinence because it reduces pressure on the urethra, Dr. Kennelly says. Eating enough fiber to maintain regular bowel movements also helps for the same reason.
For overactive bladder, avoid foods and drinks that irritate the bladder, including coffee, tea, soda, cranberry juice, spicy or acidic foods, and citrus products, Dr. Kennelly says. And instead of running to the bathroom each time you have the impulse, try this quick fix: Squeeze and relax your pelvic floor muscles about 10 times. (Imagine stopping the flow of urine midway through emptying your bladder. Those are your pelvic floor muscles.)
“This exercise will actually tell the bladder from the nerve to stop contracting,” Dr. Kennelly says.
Passing gas is totally normal—most people do it up to 21 times per day. While beans get all the blame, you may be eating other foods that commonly lead to breaking wind.
“Watch the lactose in your diet,” advises Sita Chokhavatia, M.D., a gastroenterologist in Ridgewood, New Jersey. You may have an intolerance for this natural sugar in milk and other dairy products like cheese and ice cream. As we age, we have less of the enzyme lactase, which is needed to digest lactose, Dr. Chokhavatia explains. Lactose-free milks can help.
Another common gas culprit is sorbitol, an artificial sweetener in sugar-free gum and candy. The act of chewing gum or sucking on hard candies doesn’t help either: It increases the amount of air you swallow, which also contributes to gas. Eating too fast, wearing ill-fitting dentures, or smoking a pipe can also lead to ingesting more air.
If you’re concerned about the amount of gas you’re passing—or its smell—bring it up with your physician. There are many over-the-counter and prescription medications that can relieve your symptoms.
Another reason to talk to your doc: Gas can be a sign of a bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine—sometimes a result of diabetes, diverticulitis, or inflammatory bowel disease, Dr. Chokhavatia says.
5. Fecal Incontinence
Soiling your pants happens when the sphincters in the rectum aren’t very tight and are unable to hold back stool, especially when it’s liquid, Dr. Chokhavatia says. “If it’s happening—even if it’s once in a while—talk to a doctor,” she says. He or she can pinpoint the cause, which can include constipation, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, or nerve problems.
“The best thing is to bring it up and get a basic baseline workup,” she says. While you’re waiting to get an appointment, try doing Kegel exercises—where you tighten and relax your pelvic floor muscles several times a day—to strengthen the muscles in your anus and rectum.
Time to Talk to Doc?
A good rule of thumb: If you’ve noticed a change in your health or something is interfering with your life, give your doctor a call. Use these tips for an easier (and less embarrassing) appointment.
What else you can do to help your health: stay physically active. SilverSneakers gives you free, unlimited access to more than 15,000 gyms and fitness centers across the nation, plus classes and tools designed to keep older adults strong and independent. Check your eligibility instantly here.