Q&A: Self-diagnosis Dilemmas

We’re all guilty of turning to the internet to help diagnose our symptoms, whether it’s a sniffly nose, achy limbs or unhappy tummy. But with multiple symptoms and commonly...
self diagnosis

We’re all guilty of turning to the internet to help diagnose our symptoms, whether it’s a sniffly nose, achy limbs or unhappy tummy. But with multiple symptoms and commonly confused conditions we can often be left more puzzled than before we started searching for a cure online.

We asked Dr Sarah Jarvis to shed some light on some of the most commonly confused symptoms below:


Question: Just before my period I get really irritable, I even feel sensitive to light and sound.  I’m totally drained of energy and then afterwards I get these severe headaches. Regular painkillers don’t seem to help and it gets so bad I have to lie down in the dark. I’ve looked it up and it sounds like bad PMT, but is this really just my hormones? I’m having to take time off work because of them, is there anything you can do to help?

Dr Sarah Jarvis answers: Whilst some of the symptoms you’ve described certainly do describe PMT, they are all also signs of migraine . Migraine is commonly triggered by hormonal changes, and around half of women who suffer with migraine say their menstrual cycle directly affects their attacks . Studies suggest that migraine can be triggered by changes in hormone levels such as those which naturally occur in the time just before your period .

Try keeping a diary for at least three months, noting down details about your symptoms, as well as aspects about your daily life such as what and when you eat, your medication, how much sleep you have and even the weather. This will help your GP make a diagnosis.

If you are suffering with migraines, then there are treatments out there which treat the root cause of them, such as Imigran Recovery. You can get it over the counter after speaking with your pharmacist.


Question: Throughout the day I feel more and more uncomfortable due to bloating. It starts as soon as I have breakfast and gets worse. I think it must be lactose intolerance because I have milk on my cereal, and in my tea throughout the day. On particularly bad days I get diarrhoea and I can feel my stomach churning. It’s really embarrassing and can be painful. Do you think I should get a food intolerance test or start to cut out dairy?

Dr Sarah Jarvis answers: Lactose intolerance is a common digestive problem, however many people wrongly “self-diagnose” themselves and miss out on the nutrients that dairy products provide .

Confusingly, the symptoms are very similar to those of IBS, which is also very common and can cause bouts of stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation. Rather than jumping to dietary conclusions, it’s a good idea to keep a food and symptom diary to help your GP rule out other causes. Your GP may also perform blood tests to rule out other conditions, such as infections or coeliac disease .

If you do have IBS, it can be relieved by changing your diet and lifestyle. Your GP may advise changing the amount and type of fibre in your diet, increasing the amount of water you drink and exercising regularly. It’s also good practice to restrict your alcohol, fizzy drinks and tea/coffee intake. Sometimes probiotics or medication can help too.

Muscle strain

Question: I fell awkwardly when I was at the gym and now my ankle is swollen and painful. It’s not any better after 24 hours and I think I might have sprained it. I’ve got a marathon to train for, so really don’t want to be out of action for long. I’ve read that with sprains it’s good to keep them moving, so surely it’s fine to get back to the gym if I take it easy?

Dr Sarah Jarvis answers: Ankle sprains are the most common type of sprain, accounting for a staggering 1-1.5 million visits to A&E each year in the UK .

Ligaments are strong tissues around joints which attach bones together. The steps you should take depend on how recent the injury was. For the first 2-3 days, you should follow PRICE, which stands for protection, rest, ice, compression and elevation, and avoiding HARM: heat, alcohol, running and massage – so that includes the gym!

After that, you can start moving your joint gently. Usually after an ankle sprain you will be able to walk 1-2 weeks after the injury, and use it fully after 6-8 weeks. However, you will have wait around 8-12 weeks to return to sporting activities if you want to avoid damaging it further.

You should always seek medical advice if you have a lot of tenderness over a bone; if your joint looks deformed rather than just swollen; your toes are numb or cold  (this may mean the circulation has been affected); if the bruising is very extensive; or if the symptoms don’t start to improve within a couple of days. Your GP will be able to advise further.

Seasonal flu

Question: I have a terrible headache, aches and pains everywhere, no energy, a cough and congestion, all typical signs of a common cold. I also have a pretty high fever.  I know I shouldn’t see my GP for just a cold, but I really need to get well for the weekend, so was wondering if you have any tips for getting better faster. I can’t even get out of bed at the moment!

Dr Sarah Jarvis answers: One-third of Britons think flu is just a bad cold, but each year thousands of people die of complications following flu . Colds and flu share some of the same symptoms, but there really is no such thing as ‘a touch of flu’! Infection with the influenza virus will leave you completely unable to function normally. As you have a high fever (usually above 38°C is high) and can’t get out of bed, I would suggest you have the flu, so won’t be going anywhere for a while!

Symptoms will usually peak after 2-3 days and you should begin to feel much better within 5-8. If you are otherwise fit and healthy, there is usually no need to visit your GP. The best remedy is to rest at home, keep warm and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration. You could also try paracetamol or anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen to lower a high temperature and relieve aches.

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