What’s happening? The term “tic” in medicine can mean any number of involuntary things your body does. In this case, we’re talking about those annoying little muscle twitches you get in your eye or other parts of your body, such as your knee, that bug you for a day or two for seemingly no reason. “A muscle is firing under your skin, because you are in a state of excitement or stress,” explains Jeffrey Cain, M.D., president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the chief of family medicine at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver.
Why is your body doing it? “Your body is telling you that it is stressed or tired,” says Cain. “In the case of eye twitches, they can happen from fatigue, such as staring at a computer screen all day.”
What should you do? “For most of us, these twitches are not a serious problem,” says Cain. Generally, the body is just saying that it needs a break (tics can also be caused by anxiety and worsened by caffeine or alcohol). Cain recommends that you take steps to decompress at the sign of one: “Play relaxing music, talk to a friend, or focus on something else”—away from your computer screen, for instance. If those tricks don’t help, or if the twitches continue to plague you, speak with your doctor. Tics can be symptoms of such conditions as Parkinson’s disease, autism, Bell’s palsy, or, in the case of eye twitches, an injury to the cornea.
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A Runny Nose
What’s happening? When you have a runny nose, your body is responding to an invader, such as an allergen, a virus, or bacteria. Your immune system creates an inflammatory response, which increases blood flow to the area; this brings more blood cells to help fight the infection or allergen and also produces more mucous (which is normally present to keep your airways moist but is overproduced when you have a cold). In the case of an infection, the mucous helps surround and trap it, while immune cells in the small blood vessels that line your nose attack it. With allergies, the histamine cells in your nasal passages act up, creating inflammation. Mucous alone makes for a runny nose; accompanied by a lot of inflammation, it turns into a stuffed-up nose. “Sometimes the response can be too much,” says Dale Amanda Tylor, M.D., assistant professor of otolaryngology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, “so your nose is completely blocked off or you have a hard time breathing or sleeping.”
Why is your body doing it? For the most part, a runny nose is the result of your body’s efforts to trap foreign invaders and kill them with special immune cells. But there can be other causes. Eating spicy foods, smelling certain scents (or irritants, such as smoke), or experiencing an abrupt change in climate (such as coming into a warm house from the cold outdoors) can also trigger a runny nose. This is thanks to your parasympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system that governs functions like salivation and digestion) going into high gear. Some people also experience a runny nose when they cry. In that case, tear ducts blocked by overflow can drain down into the nose, but what actually runs out of it is tears, not mucous. In rare instances, a genuine runny nose can be a sign of serious illness.
What should you do? Try an over-the-counter saline spray to help open up your nasal passages and improve drainage. If the stuff coming out is clear or white, chances are you don’t have an infection and the instigator is more likely to be allergies. When the drainage looks green, it’s more likely you have a bacterial infection (possibly in your sinuses, especially if you’re also experiencing facial or dental pain); you should check in with your doctor to see if you need antibiotics. Get to the doctor, too, if you are producing clear or white drainage for an extended period—two weeks or more: In highly uncommon, though dangerous, instances, chronic clear nasal discharge with a salty taste that is accompanied by a headache (or follows some kind of head trauma) could be an indication that you are leaking spinal fluid, says Tylor.
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What’s happening? When you cough, voluntarily or involuntarily, a deep breath of air enters your airways, causing your vocal chords (which are normally open, except when you are speaking) to slam shut, which leads to pressure building up under them. They then open quickly, and a huge gust of air accompanied by sound comes out. The force of a cough will bring secretions, such as mucous, out of your airway.
Why is your body doing it? A cough is like the bouncer of your airway. “The lungs and surrounding area should be sterile, so the goal is to keep it perfectly clear down there,” says Tylor. When your body suspects there is an infection or other unwanted intruder, it coughs to keep the area neat and clean, free of various irritants, secretions, and infective agents.
Doctors like to talk about two kinds of coughs: wet and dry. A wet, or productive, cough is one in which your body is attempting to eliminate secretions that come from viral or bacterial infections or even acid reflux. Wet coughs bring up mucous. A dry, or nonproductive, cough is just what it sounds like—nothing comes up but air. Environmental irritants (such as perfume or strong odors) and asthma are two common causes of dry coughs.
What should you do? The first thing you should do is what every preschooler learns: Cough into your elbow or sleeve or into a tissue, then promptly dispose of the latter and thoroughly wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. This keeps your germs (and whatever illness you may be harboring) from infecting others.
To treat your cough, Tylor recommends:
Staying well hydrated (bump up the juice and water, cut back on the caffeine) to thin your mucous.
Trying over-the-counter cough lozenges to soothe the tickle in your throat.
Using saline drops or spray if postnasal drip is contributing to the cough.
Trying an over-the-counter expectorant.
Tylor also cautions against giving cough-suppressant medications to children under the age of 6, since they are not necessarily effective and have been associated with a rapid heart rate and seizures in small children. Instead, she advises, focus on hydration: Try a bedside humidifier, use saline drops, and elevate the head of the child’s bed slightly (a folded blanket under the mattress works well) to help the mucous drain properly.
Some coughs will need medical attention. Call your doctor if:
You are coughing up blood.
You are having difficulty breathing.
You are also experiencing a high fever or persistent body aches.
The cough lasts for more than two weeks.
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What’s happening? Sometimes a harbinger of illness, sometimes just a funny/annoying/necessary fact of life, this tiny interior explosion, like a cough, begins with an intake of air and the shutting of your vocal chords. But this time, when they release, the tongue and the uvula (that dangly thing at the back of your throat) block the air from coming out of the mouth, so it comes out of your nasal passages instead. And with it comes whatever secretions and germs are standing in the way.
Why is your body doing it? Just as a cough keeps the riffraff out of your airway, a sneeze kicks out the would-be invaders of your nose: pollen, bacteria, viruses, and dust. “It’s your body’s way of keeping the nasal passages clear and the sinuses sterile,” says Tylor. But there are other reasons your body may squeak out a sneeze. For instance, though doctors don’t entirely know why, you sometimes sneeze when you look at a bright light such as the sun (a response known as a photic sneeze reflex).
What should you do? Well, don’t sneeze with abandon into a crowd—you’ll be spraying germs. Instead, sneeze into your elbow, sleeve, or a tissue, and then wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer directly afterward. Tylor says there is usually no harm in stifling a sneeze, but given that this is your body’s way of clearing out something harmful, it is best to let nature take its course. Blowing your nose frequently when you have a cold will cut down on your body’s need to release the irritants. If your sneezes are associated with fever, chills, muscle aches, or a cough, you may have a cold or even the flu and might want to give your doc a call. Sneezes that come on seasonally or when there is a change in the climate and are accompanied by itching eyes or clear nasal drainage are more likely due to allergies, in which case your doctor can prescribe a medication to keep them under control.
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A Sore Throat
What’s happening? That raw pain that makes you feel as if you’ve eaten broken glass is a sign that the tissue lining your throat is swollen. You also have a multitude of pain receptors concentrated in the small area that is your throat—each one of which is stimulated with every swallow.
Why is your body doing it? Your throat can become swollen for any number of reasons. You might have a viral infection or a serious bacterial infection such as strep throat, which can cause intense pain. Postnasal drip, in which your nasal passages are draining mucous into the back of your throat, can be an irritant; and even acid reflux, in which acids from the stomach back up into the esophagus, can result in a burning sensation.
What should you do? “If the pain is so bad that you are having a hard time breathing or swallowing your own saliva, it needs to be immediately assessed,” says Tylor. You should also call your doctor if the sore throat is severe and is associated with a high fever or body aches, or if it is your only symptom but persists for more than two weeks. In the latter instance, it is possible (though not statistically likely) that the pain is a sign of something more serious, such as throat cancer.
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Pins and Needles
What’s happening? When a nerve (or nerves) is being irritated for any number of reasons, and the signal that it typically sends to the brain is being scrambled, you get a numb and tingly feeling—as when your foot “falls asleep” after you’ve been sitting for a long time. “The doctor word for it is ‘paresthesia,’ ” says Cain, “and it means you’re sensing something that is not a traditional neurological response and doesn’t make sense to the brain.”
Why is your body doing it? Cain compares nerve communication to an electrical signal sent from one body part to your brain. Say you lean on your elbow: Those nerves are being compressed and cannot send a signal along the normal pathway. “The nerves can’t fire appropriately,” explains Sandra Fryhofer, M.D., a physician in Atlanta and past president of the American College of Physicians. “They can’t send the whole signal or the signal they send isn’t the proper one, and the body recognizes that as something being wrong.”
What should you do? There are plenty of benign reasons you feel pins and needles, such as crossing your legs for too long, or whacking your funny bone on the counter. They will generally resolve quickly—within minutes, most likely. Others, such as fluid buildup during pregnancy that can cause carpal tunnel syndrome (in which the radial nerve that passes through your wrist to your hand gets compressed) can be more troublesome and painful, but will usually go away on their own in time—say, after you’ve delivered the baby and your body has gone back to normal. But there are some conditions—such as diabetes, vitamin B12 deficiency, or when a bone is pressing on a nerve—that can cause long-term damage if they are not addressed, says Fryhofer. If you experience pins and needles more than just occasionally and aside from any benign causality or they are accompanied by muscle weakness, talk to your doctor to see whether he or she should be investigating a more serious problem.
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What’s happening? Tiny little muscles at the base of the hairs pull them to attention, which raises the skin around the follicles into little bumps. “The doctor term for it is ‘pilomotor erection,’ which is a fancy term for making hair follicles stand up,” says Cain. But the condition’s nonclinical name is spot-on: Goose bumps make us resemble a defeathered fowl.
Why is your body doing it? In cold weather, puffed-up hair creates a barrier of insulation to keep heat inside. And though this natural response still works for animals that are covered in fur, with the loss of hair we’ve experienced over the course of evolution, it’s not really doing much for us anymore. This function can also be triggered by the fight-or-flight response we experience when we sense danger: The goal here is to make us look bigger and scarier (think of a porcupine with its needles in full effect or a cat whose fur is raised). But, once again, our modern-day baldness renders the effect less than impressive. Pleasure, sexual arousal, or even hearing a favorite song can net the same primitive response, though experts aren’t exactly sure why.
What should you do? Nothing: Goose bumps are a harmless evolutionary holdover. And, hey, if they feel good, like when you hear a haunting melody or your better half tickles your back, then just enjoy them.
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What’s happening? Blood vessels under the skin have been broken and are leaking blood into the surrounding tissues. Bruises usually start as purple. As we all know from middle-school biology, blood that has not been oxygenated by your lungs is a dark color, which is why bruises first appear with that telltale eggplant tone. They then evolve through a series of colors, finally ending with a faint yellow/brown as the body begins to break down the pooled blood into a series of waste products and clear them away.
Why is your body doing it? A bruise is simply an indication of some kind of bodily trauma—minor or major. “It doesn’t serve a purpose,” says Cain. “It’s just a sign of your body’s ongoing healing attempt.”
What should you do? “The best treatment for a bruise is rest and ‘tincture of time,’ ” says Cain. Elevating the injured area and applying compression to it—as you raise your arm and then get it wrapped with a dressing after giving blood—may decrease the size of the bruise if you do it soon after the injury. If you’re really sore, Cain recommends trying over-the-counter painkillers such as naproxen or ibuprofen. You should see a doctor if you bruise very easily (from the most minor injuries), your bruises do not go away, or if you have a very large bruise (for instance, it covers a large part of your arm or leg), which can be a sign that you have lost a lot of blood.
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A Sprained Ankle
What’s happening? “When you sprain your ankle, you have usually rolled or turned it,” says Cain. “It’s your body’s job to be able to hold the alignment of the joints, but when you stress a joint too far, the ligaments can be stretched, partially torn, or even completely torn.” When ligaments, those tough bands of tissue that keep your joints stable, get loose and tear, pain inevitably follows. To start the healing process, your body initiates swelling. Sometimes bruising will appear if the ligaments have bled.
Why is your body doing it? Chalk the torn ligaments up to something you did or didn’t do (like warm up before you took that run) or dumb luck (who put that hole right in the middle of the sidewalk?). Once ligaments are torn, your body takes over, giving them time to heal by creating inflammation and pain. “Pain and swelling is your body’s natural way of saying ‘Be easy and gentle with me until this is healed,’ ” says Cain.
What should you do? If you can get up on your tiptoes and there’s no instability, you don’t necessarily need to see a doctor, says Cain. On the other hand, if you “have a lot of bruising and the ankle is unstable and you can’t walk or hop on it,” you should seek medical assistance. To play it completely safe, “it’s a good idea to have a sprained ankle X-rayed,” cautions Fryhofer. “I’ve had patients walk around on a broken ankle they just thought was sprained.” Plus, the doctor may put you in an Aircast—a lightweight but protective brace that you can easily put on and take off—to help you recover quicker.
Depending on the severity of the sprain, an ankle can take days or even months to get back to normal, but it will heal in time. Home treatment should involve RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Ice the ankle for 20 minutes every three to four hours during the first 48 to 72 hours following the injury. Wrap it with a compression elastic stocking or ACE bandage (both of which you can find at your local pharmacy) and elevate it on a bed of cushions whenever possible. And, it probably goes without saying, stay off it as much as possible.