Common Complaints

1 out of 5 doctor’s appointments in England are taken up by common complaints which most of the time can be treated at home using over the counter medicines.

Visits to your doctor for conditions that can be self treated costs the NHS and estimated £2 billion every year.

Below are tips on how to self help with common complaints and when to seek help from your doctor.

Back pain

  • Use paracetamol or ibuprofen for pain relief.
  • 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. This may ease your symptoms.
  • It’s important to remain mobile by continuing, within reason, your day-to-day activities, including work.
  • Remain positive. Studies show that if you keep positive, you’re likely to make a quicker recovery.

If your back pain is no better after two weeks of self care or more, see your GP.  The attached link is to the Back Pain Screening Tool that GPs use to classify back pain.


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

  • Avoid scratching. Scratching may damage your skin and allow bacteria to get in, leading to infection.
  • Try to identify the irritant or allergen, and 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.

If the rash doesn’t clear up after using the self care techniques, see your GP.

Heartburn and indigestion

Digestive complaints such as 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 will recommend antacid medicines or alginates.
  • 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.

Most mild abdominal pain usually lasts two to four days. If the pain persists, see your GP.

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, a doctor can’t offer you anything more than a pharmacist can provide.

Self care tips:

  • Over-the-counter decongestants medicines can help to relieve a blocked nose by reducing the swelling of the blood vessels in your nose.
  • 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.

Don’t use decongestants for more than five to seven days at a time. This is because they only provide short-term relief. Using them for any longer can make your symptoms worse. If symptoms persist, see your GP.


If you have difficulty passing stools, changing your diet may be all that’s needed to cure your constipation without taking medication.

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.
  • 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 oral laxative, which is available from pharmacies and supermarkets.

If over-the-counter laxatives don’t ease the symptoms, see your GP. They may prescribe  laxatives on a regular basis.


A migraine is a recurrent headache that’s strong enough to stop you from carrying on with daily life. There’s no cure for migraines.

Self care tips:

  • Over-the-counter painkillers are usually the first treatment for migraine. They’re more effective if taken at the first signs of a migraine attack.
  • Anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen are more effective painkillers for some people.
  • Combination medicines, which contain painkillers and anti-sickness medicines for migraine, can be bought without prescription.

If your migraines are severe, you may need stronger migraine-specific medication that’s available only on prescription.


Coughs, caused by viruses such as the common cold or by flu, usually clear up without treatment after several days once your immune system has defeated the virus. Antibiotics aren’t used for treating coughs.

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, mixing honey and lemon in hot water.
  • There’s little evidence that over-the-counter cough medicines actually work, although some of the ingredients may help to treat symptoms associated with a cough, such as a blocked nose or fever.

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

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.
  • 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 stay mobile with a sprained joint, unless you have a severe ankle sprain. This is because 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, a stronger painkiller such as codeine, which is available only on prescription, may be needed.

The length of time of recovery from a sprain or a strain will depend on the severity of the injury. Seek immediate medical treatment if your joint looks different from usual, is difficult or impossible to move, or you feel numbness or tingling.


Most headaches aren’t life threatening, and are usually relieved by medicines, relaxation techniques 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 can be taken after four hours if necessary.
  • Anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen can be more effective than paracetamol for some people.
  • Drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids, and avoid caffeine-based drinks, such as coffee and cola.

Most headaches will clear within a few hours. However, contact your GP or call NHS Direct on 0845 4647 if you develop new symptoms, your headache gets worse, or you’re still concerned or need further advice.