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Seeing the GP: Advice and tips for young people

Seeing the GP about minor short-term problems

Here, people talk about:

•    when to see the GP about minor health issues
•    young people’s experiences of minor short-term problems 

When to see the GP about minor health issues
Minor health problems can often be dealt with by using over-the-counter treatments from the chemist. Other issues that aren’t serious can often be dealt with by seeing a practice nurse at the GP surgery. When a problem isn’t serious but doesn’t seem to be going away and is worrying, then it’s a good idea to see the GP.
 

A GP talks about the various minor health problems that patients can see them about that can’t be dealt with by pharmacists or nurses.

A GP talks about the various minor health problems that patients can see them about that can’t be dealt with by pharmacists or nurses.

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Pharmacists are really good as a first port of call for minor illnesses. They can sort out things like sore throats and hay fever and colds. However, if its’s not clear what the diagnosis is, you may well have to see the GP. And also if you might need antibiotics, only a GP can prescribe those. In terms of minor cuts or sprains, again the pharmacist may be able to help you with painkillers and dressings. But if its’s a question of very strong painkillers or there may be broken bones, again you’ll need to see the GP.
People often see their GP about minor short-term problems that have lasted longer than they expected or keep coming back. The range of minor concerns is huge – from persistent coughs to sports injuries, aches and pains, allergies, rashes and infections. Many minor health issues are ‘self-limiting’. This means that they’ll get better by themselves and have no long-term harmful effect on a person’s health. Young people who are still learning about their health might not always know whether a condition is self-limiting or whether they need to see a doctor. 

Many infections, like colds and flu, and many ear and chest infections, are caused by viruses, which means that antibiotics won’t work. They only work against bacterial infections. Some people, like Aphra and Vinay, disliked taking medication too often, having it only if they really needed it. Aphra felt that some of her friends seemed to be given ‘antibiotics for almost everything’ and Jon was aware that taking them unnecessarily can cause superbugs. Paula, who’d had them for acne, recognised that the bacteria causing her acne had become resistant to the antibiotics she’d been taking (see below). 

Young people’s experiences of minor short-term problems
Some of the young people we talked to rarely saw the GP – they were usually healthy and only went to the doctors’ on the odd occasion when something seemed wrong. Hannah hardly ever saw the GP apart from going to get the contraceptive pill.
 

Jake recalled having injections at the surgery. He also went for check-ups after having his appendix out and breaking his arm. A chest infection was the most recent reason.

Jake recalled having injections at the surgery. He also went for check-ups after having his appendix out and breaking his arm. A chest infection was the most recent reason.

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When you went as a child did you go with someone like your mum or your dad?

Yeah, I went with my mum. I remember I went to get jabs and stuff like that.

So you remember…

Yeah, I've been other times as well, shall I....?

Yeah.

When I was seven, after I had my appendix out I went there and they just gave me a check-up then. And I broke my arm two years ago, and I went a couple of months after that. And I went this time last year when I had a chest infection.

Yeah. So those are the times that you’ve been?

Yeah, yeah. I've never had any trouble or anything, it's always been good.
Lara and Paula, like a few other people who were still at school, recalled seeing the GP when they were younger for annual check-ups and injections. Other than that, it was rare for them to go to the doctors’. Lara once went because she kept getting painful mouth ulcers. Paula had been on different occasions over the years for problems with acne, her periods, and ear wax; and Auberon had been because of ear infections and persistent coughs.
 

Lara doesn’t usually get ill and some things, like a rash she had, just go away by themselves. She has a general check-up about once a year.

Lara doesn’t usually get ill and some things, like a rash she had, just go away by themselves. She has a general check-up about once a year.

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I don’t get very ill normally, like ill enough to have to go [to the GP]. But one time I had like a rash all over my arms and my chest. And so my mum took me to the doctors’ to see if there was like anything wrong. And they were like, “It might just, it will go away.” And it went away. But normally we just go for like check-ups or anything like that. But we don’t go normally, if we’re really ill....

How often do you go for check-ups?

Probably maybe once a year, maybe not even once a year. It’s not very often, but, yeah.

Can you just talk me through what would normally happen in a typical check-up?

Of what I can remember, we would go there. They would ask us questions. They would like check our body, our what’s it called? Like our body temperature. Check our heart rate, and just make sure everything’s okay. And then that’s it.

And who would normally do these check-ups? Was it the nurse or was it the doctor?

Doctor.
Skin problems are one of the most common reasons for young people to see a GP. Acne is a short-term problem for many people but some young people have it for several years. It can take a long time to treat and have a big impact on them. Ish first saw the GP about acne when he was around 14. He had problems with it for over five years and also saw a hospital skin specialist (a dermatologist).
 

Ish’s acne was ‘serious’ from the age of around 14 to 20. Stress at school made it worse. He tried several shop bought creams and lotions before he went to the GP.

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Ish’s acne was ‘serious’ from the age of around 14 to 20. Stress at school made it worse. He tried several shop bought creams and lotions before he went to the GP.

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Can I ask you about when the first time was when you went to see a doctor about acne?

Mm. I think it was around when I was like thirteen, fourteen. So around then and it was continuous ’til I was about twenty. So nineteen, twenty, ’till it was actually still serious. I’m guessing I was more stressed about high school. That just put a lot onto it and made my acne even worse. That was the most time that I always went to the doctors about it. 

Nowadays it’s mostly likely under control unless there’s like huge amount of stress, then one or two still comes out. But now I can deal with it, you know, so... But you know it’s still took eight, nine years of experience finding out what are the things that are like making it worse.

Mm. And before you first went to the doctor, did you sort of try over the counter shop bought treatments or face washes or moisturisers and things?

Yeah, I did try several ones, like I did try the ones that would work for my mum, for example. But because she has a different skin tone, for me, some of it just made it worse. So then I was just like, “Yeah, I give up, let’s just go to the doctor and get it checked out. It’s a lot easier.”
Several people had seen the GP for ongoing athlete’s foot, fungal foot infections, and ingrown toenails.

Amy saw the GP for a few months as a child and had several tests. When she was playing with a friend, her friend found a needle and syringe under a car. They decided to play ‘doctors and nurses’ and the friend injected Amy in the arm. Being only 5 or 6, neither had any idea how dangerous this could be. After going to A &E (Accident and Emergency), Amy had tests that were done by the GP. More recently she has seen the GP about a long-term health problem.
 

Amy could never forget the monthly blood tests she had at the GP surgery. They hurt and the needle used seemed very long. The results were normal.

Amy could never forget the monthly blood tests she had at the GP surgery. They hurt and the needle used seemed very long. The results were normal.

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I remember being a young girl and my friend found a syringe under a car. And she said, “Let’s play doctors and nurses.” Now I just assumed, “Yeah, let’s play.” And she stabbed me with the needle in the side of my arm twice here. And, as you know, my vein’s there. 

So where it was a needle, they didn’t know about this needle. It was literally just under a car. So it was somebody else’s. So I had to go through months and months of tests to make sure that I didn’t contract anything as HIV or anything bad.

So that was your very first memory? Which is a-

Yes, that sticks, yeah, that sticks.

How old were you?

I was very, very young. I would say about 6 or 5. The only reason why I remember it is because of the big needles I had in my legs into my bone marrow. Cos I had to have injections into my bone marrow to extract some, to see if there was anything specific. I think, yeah, it was the blood from there that they used.

So they did lots of tests. And some you had to come back for monthly, back to the hospital?

Back to my local GP and then they transferred the blood tests over. But it come back negative. So [laughs]....

That’s good. Can you remember going back every month to see the GP?

Yes, cos I remember the big injections in my legs. That’s the one thing I can never forget. I think I can still remember the feeling of it going in. It’s something you don’t forget. Because I remember it hurt so much. And they had to hold me so I didn’t kick my legs. And I remember the needle being, I would say that was at least 3½ to 4 inches long and straight into the bottom of my thigh bone.

And your doctor was doing that?

Yeah, my doctor.

At the local surgery?

Yeah.
Young people who were still at school often spoke to a parent when they thought they were unwell. Emma’s dad was a GP so she usually spoke to him first, and John spoke to a relative who was a doctor. People who had moved away from home for university or work sometimes spoke to friends first, who suggested they should see the GP. People were less likely to speak to friends if they felt the problem was very personal or embarrassing.
 

Ish felt embarrassed about his acne as a teenager so the relationship with the GP was very important. Fitting in with friends is important at that young age.

Ish felt embarrassed about his acne as a teenager so the relationship with the GP was very important. Fitting in with friends is important at that young age.

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I mean to be honest, especially during that age, I don’t think anyone’s going to talk to it, talk about it. That’s why it’s so important, as I said like, finding the right doctors who make you feel welcome and open about this subject ’cos you’re not really going to start talking to your friends about these kinds of things during that age. It just makes you feel awkward a little bit and you’re embarrassed about it. 

I mean later on like, I know it’s a cliché, but when you grow up a little bit more you have more experience, you will know that your friends went through it and it’s a little bit easier to talk about it. And it’s like, “Yeah, I used this and I used that and it worked perfectly, you know.” It’s more of an open subject. 

But when you’re twelve, thirteen, fourteen, it’s like you’re not going to talk about it. You have enough stress on you as it is fitting into a social group at school and everything. You don’t want to be known as the person, “Oh yeah, that’s the kid with the worst acne in the school, you know and he evens talks about it.” So you don’t, you try to avoid that [laughs].
When Aphra was at university she got what she thought was a chest infection for three months every winter. She saw a few different GPs and was referred for tests. The infection was never diagnosed but she thinks it could have been an allergy:
 

Aphra took painkillers, antibiotics, steroids, indigestion tablets, and had several tests. When she moved away from the coast, she was fine again.

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Aphra took painkillers, antibiotics, steroids, indigestion tablets, and had several tests. When she moved away from the coast, she was fine again.

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Basically the best guess is that it was an allergy to mushrooms and croup at the same time. So it got to the point where they gave me asthma tests and inhalers, even though I kept saying, "It's not asthma. I've been on six sports teams for five years; I'd notice if I had asthma." And when I did the asthma test they came back and said, "No she's got the lungs of a rugby player, there's nothing wrong there." And it just took them so long to even give me pain relief. 

It wasn’t until the second year of having it that they went, "Oh you can take codeine for the pain." So it lasts for three months every year while I was at uni, and the first year I did it with no pain relief at all, and it was incredibly painful.

So three months of a chest infection?

Yeah.

In the same kind of months, like the winter months or?

Yeah, it came every February, that’s why they think it was when the mushroom spores were released. But because I'd never lived by the coast before, they weren't sure if it was something to do with the ocean. They weren't sure whether it was environmental or whether there was a different disease there. But by the time, in the first year that they decided to do an x-ray, it had already started to clear up. And then in the second year, that was when they finally said, "Oh you can just have pain relief if you think you can handle it. We won't try to give you antibiotics again" because I mean the first year I'd had antibiotics for three months straight and…

With the GP?

Yeah, and I never normally touch antibiotics because, as much as they're good for you when you need them, taking them at the wrong time is really unhelpful. And then they decided that pain relief was the best way forward because it was a different GP I was seeing, and it cleared up just as he thought it would. 

But by the time it came to the third year and I had it again, I saw a different GP who kept telling me she thought it was heartburn. And I kept having to argue with this lovely, lovely woman that it wasn’t heartburn because you don’t just get heartburn for three months of every year, and then it go away. 

And then they put me on steroids for a little while, which caused me to have nose-bleeds all the time. And the steroids they put me on actually I've only just been able to stop telling the dentist I was taking, because they stay in your system for so long. And then they tried to give me some indigestion tablets where I always remember…I always read the leaflet and one in ten people could have bleeding from the eyes and the mouth and I was thinking, 'This really isn't something I want to take.' And it made me feel so ill for the three days that I took them that I just went, "I'm not taking these again. I'll leave it and I'll go see my own GP at home." But actually, in the end, it cleared up and I've never had the problem since.
Some people, like Isaac, saw their GP for hay fever. At a younger age, he’d also seen the doctor for eczema. Most recently he went because of a mole on his arm.
 

The GP told Isaac that the mole on his arm would have to be removed in hospital later that week. He phoned Isaac at home with the appointment details.

The GP told Isaac that the mole on his arm would have to be removed in hospital later that week. He phoned Isaac at home with the appointment details.

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He [GP] had a look at it and heard what I'd said, and to my stress said, "You're going to have to go to hospital and get that removed like almost immediately." And within the week I was in hospital having it removed, so I was. Yeah, immediately when he was like, "Oh you're going to have to go to hospital", I was like ah, so it's a bit more serious. He's like, "But you're fine, this is why we take you there, it's fine." But when you get told you need to go to hospital, you don’t immediately start going, "Oh, I'm fine, that’s yeah."

Could he have said that in a better way or were there not many ways to…?

There aren't many ways to say to someone you need to get something cut off your arm in a hospital. And I suppose you need to be told, and once you're told you just sort of have to deal with the slight stress it causes and get it done, yeah.

And did he say…give you much information…what is it, what's going on there?

He didn’t really. He just sort of said, "Well, you have got a mole that is slightly abnormal; you are going to have to have it removed; we will have to get you to a hospital." And that was really the information I had. But at the time I'm like, "OK so get it…get off…get it ridden…get rid of it," you know. At the time I didn’t really need more information than, "Right, when am I going?" like you know, because if it needs to go, let's get it done, that was more my frame of thinking than, yeah.

So you wanted to get rid of it and that’s what he said.

Yeah, once the doctor said, "Well it needs to go." I'm like, "Well, get it done then, it's…yeah."

Would you have liked any information or do you think he gave you enough?

I think he gave me enough and I suppose it…yeah I think the information I needed was given, and the facts were there that I had something, it wasn’t right, it needed to be gone. I'm quite a straight forward sort of person. It's like, well if it needs…this needs to happen, get it done, let's you know get it over with, that’s more of…yeah.

Did he say how long it would take? Did you know that it would happen that quickly, within the week?

No, they rang up my house a few hours later when I got home, and they stated that’s where my appointment was, that’s where I was to go, and yeah, so yeah.

So that was quite quick.

It was, yes.

Did you expect them to ring that day?

Considering the doctor's reaction to the mole, I was expecting it to be rather quick. I was expecting the reaction to be rather quick considering his reaction to seeing it and hearing what I said was rather quick of, "We're getting rid of that, you're going to hospital", so yeah.

Did that worry you at all or did you just think, well at least I'm getting it seen to or.....

At least I'm getting it seen to; at least it's going to be gone, it's not…and he did reassure me because I did mention seeing the poster in the waiting room. He did assure me, "You haven’t got cancer, it just needs to be gone to make sure nothing happens." So that was fine, yeah.
Vinay had pain around his lower back for a few weeks. After speaking to his parents, he decided to see a doctor. He had several appointments and tests and was diagnosed a few months later:
 

Tests showed calcium deposits and that Vinay had had kidney stones. Not knowing what was causing the pain ‘can almost magnify that pain and that experience’.

Tests showed calcium deposits and that Vinay had had kidney stones. Not knowing what was causing the pain ‘can almost magnify that pain and that experience’.

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I felt severe pain in my lower back. It was like stabbing pain as well as dull pain and it was always uncomfortable. It felt like it was moving around, like the pain would be moving from place to place in different places, different regions, and when I went to sleep at night it was very difficult. As a, whatever side I slept on, the pain seemed to transit, moving around quite a bit.

I got the results almost straightaway. They told me, “Oh yeah there’s a few calcium deposit’s there and we think they’re indicative of stones. You might have got rid of some of them.” Yeah it was almost instantaneous. 

Yeah. Did you know at all before the point that they confirmed that it was kidney stones, that it could be kidney stones or…?

I think for a large portion of time I was just unsure about what it was. I just knew that I was having a lot of pains in my kidneys. A lot of burning feelings and I didn’t know what it was I think for a while. I kind of guessed it was kidney stones, but your mind can sort of play on it, and when it, when you’re in pain, you can sort of exaggerate and you don’t know what it is. And I think the unknown is something that can almost magnify that pain and that experience.
Louis recalled seeing the GP about a stomach bug when he was younger, and Sarah went because of painful stomach cramps and diarrhoea that she had for about a week and wasn’t getting any better. She had campylobacter, which is the most common cause of food poisoning in the UK. The bacteria are usually found on raw or undercooked meat (especially poultry such as chicken), unpasteurised milk and untreated water. Sarah felt that the doctors didn’t take her symptoms seriously until tests showed that it was campylobacter. After that, the GP was ‘really good’.
 

The GP visited Sarah at home and an ambulance took her to hospital. She started feeling better after having antibiotics.

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The GP visited Sarah at home and an ambulance took her to hospital. She started feeling better after having antibiotics.

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Campylobacter was a bit different actually to any health experience I’ve had in that luckily it was the only time I’ve been ever like seriously physically ill. And was written off work for five weeks with that, and was in hospital for a little bit but the doctors didn’t really take it seriously initially. I couldn’t really get to the doctors which was a problem. I managed to get to the doctors and didn’t really take it seriously. Asked me to come back with a stool sample, which always annoys me because I don’t know why you have to give stool samples in clear pots in clear bags, ‘cos it’s just awkward for everyone. I really think they should make something along those lines not clear for when you’re handing it to receptionists. But that’s just something that always annoys me. 

But once they’d found out what it was, they rang me at home and one of the doctors came round to my house and then so, and then called an ambulance and took me to hospital. But he was, as soon as there was a name for it, like okay it was Campylobacter, everything kind of swung into place and like the food standards agency and people were getting in touch and like all sorts of stuff. So yeah that was a bit different.

So that, at first, you know what kind of symptoms were you going to the GP with, where they –

Well I just had, I wasn’t vomiting. I just had diarrhoea, which is quite unusual for Campylobacter, and I had really bad stomach cramps, like crippling ones, so I couldn’t sit upright. And I wasn’t absorbing – this is really gross – I wasn’t absorbing water was my concern. And I knew I wasn’t, which is why I, it kind of got flagged as a problem, and I wasn’t taking in, so if I ate something it would come out as I’d eaten it. So there was no kind of situation of getting any nutrients out. So I knew I wasn’t well and I couldn’t really stand up. 
Sports injuries were another reason young people went to see the GP. Sometimes they were referred to other specialists, such as a physiotherapist. Kyle saw the doctor when he tore his hip flexor muscle during hurdles training. The hip flexor muscle is located deep in the front of the hip and connects the leg, pelvis and abdomen (stomach). A torn hip flexor and groin strain are the same thing but Kyle felt that this wasn’t explained to him.
 

Kyle had pain after training. The GP thought it was groin strain. The local physio called it a torn hip flexor.

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Kyle had pain after training. The GP thought it was groin strain. The local physio called it a torn hip flexor.

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A couple of years ago I had…I tore my hip flexor, so yeah.

Oh playing football?

No, hurdles.

Hurdles.

Yeah, I was in training.

Right.

Yeah, and there was an ingrowing toenail and stuff that’s…yeah

So when you had that first injury, when you were doing hurdles, what happened, were you at school or you were training outside school?

I was training outside school, and then I didn’t really feel it, but then it just started getting worse. So I went to the doctors. They didn’t really help much, though. They just said I had groin strain – I didn’t. Yeah.

Oh, well that’s actually quite interesting. So, first of all you were training. You went back home?

Yeah.

Yeah. And did you feel any pain?

Only when I moved it in certain positions. I could walk fine. I couldn’t really run that well though. And then I sort of left it and then it started getting a bit worse, so I just went to the doctors.

So while you were having a bit of pain and it was getting worse sometimes, who did you tell about that?

My dad, yeah, cos he takes me to sports and everything. And then I told my coach and then he recommended me to a physio, yeah, in my local area.

So is that the time then that you went to see the doctor?

Yeah, I went to the doctors before the physio.
 
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