Treat at home

Common health complaints like coughs, colds and headaches account for one in every five GP appointments in England.

Many of these can be treated quicker and just as effectively at home using self care, advice from your pharmacist and over-the-counter medicines bought from pharmacies or supermarkets.

Below are the top 10 conditions, listed in decreasing order, that account for 75% of GP consultations for minor ailments.

  1. Back pain
  2. Dermatitis
  3. Heartburn and indigestion
  4. Nasal congestion
  5. Constipation
  6. Migraines
  7. Coughs
  8. Acne
  9. Sprains and strains
  10. Headaches

Find out the most effective treatments for dealing with each of these conditions at home.

Remember that you can get advice from your local community pharmacist on a whole range of health issues, including when to visit your GP. And there’s no appointment needed.

1. Back pain

One in five people visits their GP in any given year because of back pain. Most cases of back pain can be treated with over-the-counter medicines and self-care aids and techniques.

Self-care tips:

  • Use paracetamol or ibuprofen for pain relief. If taking ibuprofen, make sure you take it with food. Read the Patient Information Leaflet before taking any medicine.
  • Hot or cold compression packs, available from larger pharmacies, can also help with the pain.
  • You can make your own cold compression pack by wrapping a bag of frozen food in a towel.
  • Place a small firm cushion beneath your knees when you’re sleeping on your side. Or use several firm pillows to prop up your knees when lying on your back.
  • It’s important to remain mobile by, within reason, carrying on with your day-to-day activities, including work.
  • Stay positive. Studies show that if you keep positive, you’re likely to make a quicker recovery.
  • Take care when lifting objects.

If your back pain is no better after at least two weeks of self care, or if you develop other symptoms, your back pain gets worse or you need further advice, speak to your pharmacist or call 111. They can tell you if you need to contact your GP.

See more information on back pain.

2. Dermatitis

Dermatitis, which includes conditions such as mild eczema, happens when your body comes into contact with a substance that irritates your skin or causes an allergic reaction.

Self-care tips:

  • Avoid scratching. Scratching may damage your skin and allow bacteria to get in, leading to infection. It may help to keep your nails short.
  • Try to identify the irritant or allergen so you can avoid coming into contact with it.
  • Moisturising creams called emollients can help to calm a mild flare-up of dermatitis. They’re available from pharmacies and supermarkets. Unperfumed ones are better for dermatitis.

If the rash doesn’t clear up after using these self-care techniques, consult your pharmacist or see your GP.

For more information on dealing with dermatitis, check out our dermatitis and eczema pages.

3. Heartburn and indigestion

Digestive complaints like heartburn, indigestion and bloating are very common. They’re usually treatable with simple changes to your lifestyle and over-the-counter remedies.

Self-care tips:

  • For short-term relief, a pharmacist may recommend antacid medicines (to neutralise stomach acid) or alginates (to protect your oesophagus from acid).
  • Diet, excess weight, smoking, alcohol and going to bed on a full stomach can all contribute to indigestion.
  • Make a note of any food or drink that seems to make your indigestion worse, and try to avoid them. This may mean eating less rich, spicy and fatty foods, and cutting down on drinks that contain caffeine, such as tea, coffee and cola.

Mild abdominal pain usually lasts two to four days. If the pain or bloating persists, see your GP.

Find more information in our section on heartburn, indigestion and digestive health.

4. Nasal congestion

In most cases, a blocked nose will clear within a few days without treatment once the body fights off the underlying infection. If you’ve got a virus, such as a cold or flu, your GP can’t offer you anything more than a pharmacist can provide. Antibiotics won’t help.

Self-care tips:

  • Over-the-counter decongestant medicines can help to relieve a blocked nose by reducing swollen blood vessels in your nose. Don’t use decongestants for more than five to seven days at a time. Using them for any longer can make your symptoms worse.
  • Inhaling steam from a bowl of hot (but not boiling) water may soften and loosen the build-up of mucus in your nose. Adding menthol crystals or eucalyptus oil to the water may ease your blocked nose and catarrh.

If symptoms persist, consult your pharmacist or see your GP.


5. Constipation

If you are having difficulty passing stools (going for a poo), changing your diet may be all that’s needed to ease your constipation without taking medicines.

Self-care tips:

  • If your constipation is causing pain, take a painkiller, such as paracetamol.
  • Add more fibre to your diet, such as fruit, vegetables, wholewheat pasta, wholemeal bread, seeds, nuts and oats. This may take a few days to have an effect.
  • Make sure you’re drinking enough water. Cut down on caffeine, alcohol and fizzy drinks.
  • Regular exercise will greatly reduce your risk of getting constipation.
  • If diet and lifestyle changes don’t help, try an over-the-counter laxative. Ask your pharmacist’s advice and follow the instructions on the packet or leaflet carefully.

If over-the-counter laxatives don’t ease your symptoms, see your GP.

Find more information on treating constipation.

6. Migraines

A migraine is a reoccurring headache that’s strong enough to stop you from carrying on with daily life.

Self-care tips:

  • Ask your pharmacist for advice. They may recommend over-the-counter painkillers. These are usually more effective if taken at the first signs of a migraine attack.
  • Combination medicines, which contain painkillers and anti-sickness medicines for migraine, can be bought without prescription. Always get your pharmacist’s advice first.

If your migraines are severe, you may need stronger migraine-specific medicines that are only available only on prescription from your GP.

Find more information on treating migraines.

7. Coughs

Coughs are usually caused by viruses such as the common cold or flu. They usually clear up without treatment once your immune system has beaten the virus. Antibiotics won’t help with coughs caused by viruses.

Self-care tips:

  • Drink plenty of fluids – water is best. Make sure you drink something non-alcoholic at least every hour.
  • Make your own homemade cough mixture by mixing honey and lemon in hot water.
  • Some over-the-counter medicines can help to relieve cold or flu symptoms, such as a blocked nose, fever and headache.
  • If you smoke, try to stop smoking (see some tips on stopping smoking). Get advice from your pharmacy team about over-the-counter products that can help you stop smoking, or visit an NHS stop-smoking service.

See your GP if you’ve had a cough for more than three weeks after a viral infection, or your cough is progressively getting worse.

Find more information on treating coughs.

8. Acne

Acne consists of spots and painful bumps on the skin. It’s most noticeable on the face, but can also appear on the back, shoulders and buttocks.

Self-care tips:

  • Avoid picking or squeezing spots as this can cause inflammation and lead to scarring.
  • Use a mild face wash, which can be bought from a pharmacy. Bear in mind that over-washing can aggravate acne.
  • There’s no evidence that wearing make-up or that certain foods, such as fried foods or chocolate, can cause or aggravate acne.
  • Acne is caused by bacteria building up on your skin. The less you touch your skin, the less bacteria will spread on your skin.
  • There’s no evidence that sunlight helps acne.
  • Mild acne can be treated using gels or creams, such as benzoyl peroxide. Ask your pharmacist for advice.

If over-the-counter treatments don’t help, treatments are available on prescription from your GP.

Find more information on treating acne.

9. Sprains and strains

Most mild to moderate sprains and strains can be treated at home using the PRICE technique.

Self-care tips:

  • PRICE stands for protection, rest, ice, compression and elevation. For information on applying PRICE, read sprains and strains: treatments.
  • For the first 72 hours after a sprain or muscle strain you should avoid heat – such as hot baths – alcohol, running and massage.
  • Try to keep your sprained joint mobile, unless the sprain is severe. The injury will heal quicker if you move the joint as soon as you’re able to.
  • If you feel pain from a strain or sprain, use paracetamol in the first instance. If paracetamol doesn’t help, ask your pharmacist for advice.

Your recovery time from a sprain or a strain will depend how serious the injury is. Get medical help straight away if your joint looks different than usual, is difficult or impossible to move, or you feel numbness or tingling.

Find more information on treating sprains and strains.

10. Headaches

Most headaches aren’t serious, and are usually relieved by medicines, relaxation techniques and lifestyle changes.

Self-care tips:

  • For pain relief, paracetamol usually works well to relieve a tension-type headache. It’s best to take a full dose as soon as a headache starts. A second dose of paracetamol can be taken after four hours if necessary. No more than eight paracetamol tablets should be taken in one day.
  • Anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen, can also help with headaches.
  • Be aware that taking painkillers more than two or three times a week can actually cause headaches. Read more about painkiller headaches.
  • Regular exercise and relaxation may help to prevent tension headaches.

Most headaches will clear within a few hours. Contact your GP or call NHS 111 if your headache gets worse or you develop other symptoms, such as a stiff neck or sensitivity to light.

For more information, read about headache triggers and the different types of headache.