Healthy Living: We answer your most personal health questions

If you blush at the thought of asking your doctor an embarrassing health question, fear not. We’ve asked them for you! Here are the answers to your most mortifying queries – and some advice on how to ask for yourself next time

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I smell something funny…

Question Why does my body odour get stronger close to my period?
Possible causes “Odour is affected by many things, including hormonal balance, fear, sexual stimulation, bacterial colonization and hydration,” says Dr. Dianne Brox, an Edmonton-based family physician.
What to do Drink water. “Hydration is important to reduce body odour,” says Dr. Brox, adding that antibacterial soaps may help reduce the smell.

Question What is a “normal” vaginal odour? Mine smells strong sometimes.
Possible causes
“There should be a smell, and it changes during your cycle,” says Dr. Jennifer Blake, chief of obstetrics and gynecology at Toronto’s Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre. “It shouldn’t be unpleasant, and it’s usually not noticeable.” If the odour is fishy or ammonia-like, you could have bacterial vaginosis – an imbalance of the healthy micro-organisms or the acidity of your vagina.
What to do
Your doctor can prescribe antibiotics to get rid of vaginosis.

Question Why do I always have bad breath?
Possible causes
“Most bacteria get into the back surfaces of the tongue,” says Dr. Jack Cottrell, president of the Canadian Dental Association. If you’re brushing your tongue already and finding no difference, then the cause could be tooth decay, a medical condition such as chronic rhinitis (long-term inflammation of the lining of the nose) or certain medications (blood pressure medication, for example, can cause dry mouth). “When you’re not getting the washing effect of saliva, you’ll get odours,” says Dr. Cottrell.
What to do
Buy an infant’s toothbrush to brush your tongue – the smaller head means you’re less likely to gag. If that doesn’t help, contact your dentist.

Something sounds weird…
Question
Why does it sound like I’m passing gas during sex?
Possible causes “During intercourse, the vagina enlarges. So there’s extra space where air can get trapped,” says Dr. Blake.
What to do Try different positions, suggests Dr. Blake, as they may minimize this effect.

Question I always seem to have bad gas. Why?
Possible causes
“Some indigestible carbohydrates, such as legumes and veggies, yield gas as a by-product. Carbonated beverages can also be a problem,” says Dr. Michael Evans, an associate professor in the University of Toronto’s family and community medicine department. Excessive gas can also be a sign of an intolerance to lactose, sorbitol or fructose, or a symptom of irritable bowel syndrome.
What to do
Is it really excessive? “The average person passes gas 10 to 14 times a day,” says Dr. Evans. If you suspect your diet is the cause, try an enzyme product, such as Beano, before eating gas-inducing foods like beans or cabbage. For severe cases, Dr. Evans suggests – believe it or not! – a flatulence diary. Sounds zany, “but it may help you figure out what makes your problem worse or better,” he suggests.

Question I’m only 34 – why do my joints pop and creak so much?
Possible causes
A big one is age: the older we get, the more we hear these types of noises. If there’s pain with the sounds, that usually indicates something is wrong or damaged, says Dr. Cy Frank, director of the Alberta Bone and Joint Institute at the University of Calgary. “Inflamed tendons can make squeaking sounds. And damaged cartilage can ‘pop’ or ‘grind’ the way sandpaper sounds,” he says.
What to do
Don’t try to silence the noise by popping or manipulating your joints or body parts. Instead, talk to your doctor if you start to feel any kind of pain along with the noise. She may refer you to a specialist, such as a physiotherapist, to work out the issue.

This doesn’t look right…

Question Why do my gums bleed when I floss during my period?

Possible causes It could be gingivitis, a form of gum disease. However, if your gums bleed only during your period, blame those hormones, says Dr. Cottrell, who notes gums can become more sensitive with hormonal changes.
What to do “Be more diligent about brushing and flossing,” he suggests. Your gums will bleed less if you floss more – no matter when you do it!

Question Why is my right breast larger than my left?
Possible causes
A pair that doesn’t look perfectly parallel is just a developmental abnormality, says Dr. Brox. It may look off to you, but it’s not a sign of something wrong. “Some women consider plastic surgery because they have a marked difference, but there’s no concern about an increased cancer risk,” she says.
What to do
If the difference is big enough to make you think about surgery, visit your family doctor to discuss options. But most of the time, the difference is so subtle, it’s virtually unnoticeable to others. Short-term tip: slip a pad into the smaller bra cup to even out your look.

Question Why is my hair falling out? I’m not losing clumps of hair, but it’s more than the usual amount.
Possible causes
Telogen effluvium – when stress increases the rate of shedding. “It’s a cyclical change in the hair growth/loss pattern, which is triggered by a stressful event,” says Dr. Brox. New moms, for instance, commonly lose some hair.
What to do
If there’s no cause to pin this on – such as a crash diet, illness or severe stress – have it checked out by your doctor to make sure it’s not something else, such as a thyroid problem. If it’s severe enough, she may prescribe medications, such as minoxidil, for hair regrowth.

What’s up “down there”?
For most women, these are the most difficult questions to ask. Here are answers to the top five.

Question Why do I pee when I sneeze, laugh or have sex?
Possible causes
Child-birth or carrying extra weight. “Anything that causes pressure on the structures supporting the bladder,” says Dr. Blake. Smoking, high-impact activities (such as running) and age are also factors.
What to do
Kegels, which are vaginal exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor (think of the type of clenching and releasing you do when you urinate). “Many women aren’t aware they need to do 100 a day!” says Dr. Blake.

Question Why am I not wet enough during sex?
Possible causes
Those hormones again. “The secretion levels and consistency may be affected by the birth control pill you’re on, your age or changing hormonal levels,” says Dr. Blake. Breastfeeding can also make you feel like the Sahara down below.
What to do
If you’re on birth control, switch the type you use, or even change pill brands. Meanwhile, use a condom-friendly lubricant.

Question My crotch is always itchy! Why?
Possible causes
A chronic yeast infection – itching is the hallmark symptom (others are a whitish discharge, or pain when you urinate or have sex). But it could also be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection, such as genital warts, or just a simple skin irritation.
What to do
“Have your doctor check for yeast before using medication,” says Dr. Blake. If it’s just an irritation, wash with a gentle scent-free soap such as Dove and avoid wearing pads or pantiliners daily.

Question Can a tampon get lost up there?
Possible causes
Forgotten, maybe, but not lost. The vagina is a closed space, explains Dr. Blake. Within that space and around the cervix are little nooks or pockets. “If a tampon is left in and the string isn’t brought to the outside, it can get tucked up into a corner,” she says. You’ll be reminded by an unpleasant smell or discharge. You’re also risking severe infection if it does stay tucked inside.
What to do
Breathe deep, reach in and try to pull it out. Impossible? Then see your doctor – she’ll have to do the deed.

Question Why does it take me forever to orgasm?
Possible causes
“Some medications you’re on can certainly affect orgasm,” says Dr. Blake. “Antidepressants, especially.” But if you can orgasm by taking matters into your own hands, then there’s probably nothing physically wrong. Most likely, the biggest problem is worrying and not enjoying the moment.
What to do
Talk to your doctor if you suspect your meds are the problem. “But most of the time, it’s a psychological barrier,” says Dr. Blake. “The most important thing to understand is exactly what gives you pleasure and recognize if anxiety is getting in the way.”

Quickies
Question
Is it true that it’s bad to pluck or wax off nipple hair?
Answer No. But if you really want to get rid of it, says Dr. Evans, consider permanent (but painful) options such as laser hair removal or electrolysis.

Question Can I have sex while I’m pregnant?
Answer
Yes. But you may have to stop if your OB detects a medical condition, such as placenta previa, which means your placenta is lying low, often covering your cervix, says Dr. Blake.

Question I keep checking to see if my front door is locked. Do I have obsessive-compulsive disorder?
Answer
Not necessarily. “Once or twice is normal, but if checking is repetitive, interferes with your life and doesn’t relieve your anxiety, it could be obsessive,” says George Lucki, an Edmonton-based psychologist.

Question Do other women have inverted nipples like mine?
Answer
Yes. And you should only worry if a “normal” nipple suddenly turns in, which could be a sign of breast cancer, says Dr. Brox. Otherwise, it’s cosmetic and may correct with breastfeeding.

Question Is cracking my knuckles bad for me?
Answer
“No, but we don’t advise people to do it,” says Dr. Evans. Why? It could lead to long-term joint laxity.

Still feeling a little shy? Let Dr. Blake assure you: “There are very few questions we as doctors haven’t already heard.” But if you’re still barely able to utter the words “nipple” and “hair” in one sentence, try these techniques.

• Stay clothed “You may feel less vulnerable when you’re dressed,” says Tara O’Connell, Chatelaine’s Ask an expert psychotherapist. “Ask your doctor to return to the room after you are back in your street clothes.”
• Be honest “Starting your conversation with a truthful statement – ‘I’m nervous and very embarrassed right now, but I need to ask you something’ – reveals your anxiety,” says O’Connell. This makes it clear you need all the empathy your doctor can muster.
• Grab a pen “Write down your symptoms and questions,” says O’Connell. “Keep the list with you when you go into the exam room. This allows you to stay focused despite any feelings of embarrassment that surface.”