If you need medical help, there are more options than ever: e-doctors, e-nurses, urgent care centers, along with traditional over-the-counter medicines. But how do you know when it's OK to self-prescribe for a simple medical issue or when it's time to see a doctor, stat?
1. Virtual doctors and nurses
According to the American Telemedicine Association, as many as 15 million Americans a year are consulting with doctors virtually, through websites and virtual doctor sites, such as Doctor on Demand and FaceTime sessions.
The virtual doctors are not designed to replace in-person physician visits and the relationships that develop between patients and their regular caregivers. Video chats are meant for people with short-term health problems, like bronchitis, upper respiratory tract infections or rashes — acute problems that don't require emergency or ongoing care.
The virtual doctor visits are also good for coughs, colds, rashes, allergies or diarrhea.
The upside: It's convenient, cost-efficient and saves you on waiting room time. T
But the chats are never meant to be used for medical emergencies, such as chest pain that could signal a heart attack, or chronic conditions like diabetes.
Related: What you need to know about medicine and food interactions
2. Urgent care vs emergency rooms
If it's for a condition that you would normally see your primary care doctor for, but it's after hours or on a weekend, urgent care centers are helpful.
A true urgent care center will be staffed with doctors and nurses who can provide X-rays and a lab onsite. They can handle many common conditions, such as:
- flu and cold
- coughs and sore throat
- high fevers
- vomiting, diarrhea or stomach pain
- cuts and severe scrapes
- broken bones
- minor injuries and burns
- sports injuries
If you are experiencing symptoms that might be a heart attack or stroke, open fractures or severe bleeding, heady injury or major trauma, or loss of consciousness, head injury, or shortness of breath — don't hesitate, go to an emergency department.
Pregnant women in distress should go to an emergency department, as well.
Before going, check if the urgent care center accepts your insurance.
3. Over-the-counter or prescription?
Tens of millions of Americans have difficulty sleeping from time to time. When is it OK to self-prescribe an over-the-counter sleeping medication and when is it best to see a doctor?
Americans spend more than $425 million a year on over-the-counter sleep aids and new evidence suggest that many are misusing these medications. Although some ingredients are not physically addictive, there can be a risk of psychological dependency.
Related: 5 steps to makeover your medicine cabinet
In fact, a Consumer Reports national survey found 20 percent have taken over-the-counter sleep medication within a year. And in that group almost 1 in 5 took them daily. Most concerning — 41 percent said they took them for a year or longer. Over-the-counter sleep aids also carry warnings: they can cause serious side effects like next-day drowsiness, dizziness and confusion. And frequent use can increase the risk of dementia and even Alzheimer's disease.
According to the Mayo Clinic, when using over-the-counter sleep aids it’s best to start with your doctor. You don't need your doctor's approval to take an over-the-counter sleep aid, but it's a good idea to ask your doctor if the sleep aid might interact with other medications or underlying conditions — and to determine the best dosage.
4. I cut myself! Treat it at home or see the doctor?
Accidental cuts, especially when cooking, result in thousands of ER visits every year. If you cut yourself, or your child cuts himself, ask yourself three questions:
- How bad is the cut?
- Is there a lot of bleeding? If it's bleeding a lot put compression and place hand above their heart wait 10 minutes.
- Did you cut across a joint (like your finger)? If it goes across a joint, you should go to the ER for. If you can't move it, you may have cut a tendon or a nerve and need to seek medical care at the hospital.
And if you do opt to treat that cut at home — here's the best way to treat it:
- First wash your hands with soap and water.
- Then rinse the cut or scrape with cool water to remove dirt and debris.
- Use soap to clean the cut.
- Avoid stronger cleaning solutions like hydrogen peroxide, or rubbing alcohol. Those may irritate the wound.
- Apply a bandage.