What You Need to Know About Hemorrhoids (But Were Afraid to Ask)

By Korin Miller |

Yes, older adults are more susceptible. No, they’re not inevitable. Here’s how to prevent and treat them.

hemorrhoidsHemorrhoids can be uncomfortable—and a little embarrassing—but they’re actually very common and usually nothing to worry about. About half of adults older than 50 have experienced them.

Hemorrhoids, which are swollen veins in your anus and lower rectum, are similar to varicose veins.

“They’re no different from dilated blood vessels elsewhere in your body,” says David Cutler, M.D., a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

While people of any age can develop hemorrhoids, older adults are more susceptible because the tissues that support the veins in your rectum and anus tend to weaken and stretch as you age.

Most hemorrhoids are caused by constipation. When you strain to have a bowel movement, you put extra pressure on the veins in and around the anus, says Kristine Arthur, M.D., an internist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.

You might also have inherited a genetic predisposition to hemorrhoids, she says.

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How to Prevent Hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids don’t always cause symptoms, but when they do, they can make you itchy and uncomfortable. You might also have bleeding during bowel movements.

The best way to avoid hemorrhoids is to stay regular: Drinking plenty of water, eating lots of fiber-rich foods, and getting regular exercise should help. It’s also important to avoid straining when you have a bowel movement. Dr. Arthur recommends asking your doctor if it’s okay to take a stool softener or laxative on occasion when you get constipated.

How to Treat Hemorrhoids

If you already have hemorrhoids, taking a sitz bath (a warm, shallow bath that cleanses the perineum, which is the space between the rectum and genitalia) can relieve your discomfort, as can applying witch hazel, hydrocortisone, or lidocaine to the anus, Dr. Arthur says.

Most hemorrhoids go away by themselves within a few days, though some linger much longer. If yours persist, are very painful, or if you have anal bleeding that doesn’t go away quickly, see your doctor. Don’t worry—they’ve heard everything.

You might need a procedure to shrink or remove a hemorrhoid, or you might have an entirely different problem like an anal fissure (a tear in the lining of your anus), peptic ulcer, colon polyp, diverticulitis, or even colon cancer, Dr. Arthur says. In any case, it’s smart to get checked out so you can get the treatment you need—and get back to feeling your best.

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