Become a Health Detective

Ask yourself the following:

— Did anything change in your lifestyle before the symptoms started? (For example, did you notice that rash after you ate a food you normally don't eat? Did you wake up with shoulder pain after you played a few games of tennis for the first time in years?)

— Did anything relieve the symptoms or make them worse? (A specific activity, like lying down, or a specific medication, such a pain reliever, for example.)

— Have the symptoms gotten better or worse over time?

— Has anyone in your family had similar symptoms?

Time it right. When you call to make the appointment, ask what days are busiest and what times are best to call. Ask what to do if you have an emergency, or when the office is closed.

Take a partner. It can be helpful to take a family member or friend with you when you go to the health care professional's office. You may feel more confident if someone else is with you. Also, a friend or relative can help you remember what you planned to tell or ask the health care professional. He or she also can also be an objective listener, and help you recall what the health care professional says.

Brown bag it. During a wellness visit or after discussing your symptoms, be sure to tell your health care professional all the medications you are taking, including prescription medications, over-the-counter medications, alternative treatments, herbs and vitamins. Tell him or her the doses, and how often you take them. Consider putting all your medicines and supplements in a bag, in their original containers, and take them to your health care professional's office to discuss specific medication.

Provide the big picture. Be sure to tell your health care professional about your lifestyle, including your diet, whether or not you exercise, how much alcohol you may drink, if you smoke and other care you receive from other health care professionals.

Don't forget about stress. The physical symptoms of stress include headaches, back pain, diarrhea and chest pain, among other symptoms. If he or she doesn't ask you, let your health care professional know about any major changes, stress, losses or emotional upheavals in your life lately. This information might be useful medically.

It can be hard to discuss certain health conditions, such as sexually transmitted diseases, dependencies on alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, abusive relationships and mental health issues, to name a few. You may expect your health care professional to recognize that you are struggling with a certain issue. Too often, women are embarrassed or ashamed to start a discussion. Many times, a health care professional may overlook a symptom, forget to ask about things that may affect your health or neglect to order a test. It may be up to you to start a discussion that could improve your health — or save your life. Be honest. You may be doing yourself harm by not disclosing pertinent medical information.