The Basics for Treating a Minor Illness or Injury Yourself

There is a lot you can do on your own to treat a minor injury or illness. Keeping basic first aid and over-the-counter medications on hand can help you manage on your own. Many campus convenience stores, book stores, and sometimes vending machines sell the items you need to self-treat scrapes, colds, headaches, and other minor illnesses and injuries.

Always seek medical care if you are unsure about your symptoms or your symptoms don’t improve or if they worsen.

Treating a Cut or Scrape

Always wash your hands with warm water and soap before treating a cut in order to prevent infection.

  • Stop the bleeding by applying a clean cloth or bandage with gentle pressure.
  • Once bleeding has stopped, clean the cut with tap water and wash the surrounding area with soap. Seek medical care if there is dirt or debris in the cut that you cannot remove.
  • After you have cleaned the area, apply an antibiotic cream or ointment and cover the wound with a bandage.
  • Change the bandage at least once a day or if it gets wet or dirty.
  • Seek medical care if you notice signs of infection like redness, pain, swelling, and drainage.

Treating a Minor Sprain or Muscle Injury

Self-Care Methods

For mild sprains, strains, and overuse injuries, the RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) method is helpful for the first 48 to 72 hours after the injury.

  • Rest the injured area as much as possible. This means reducing or stopping activity that causes pain.
  • Apply an ice pack to the injured area for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day, to reduce swelling. A cold pack, a bag of frozen vegetables, or a plastic bag filled with crushed ice and wrapped in a towel can be used. Do not put ice or frozen bags directly on bare skin.
  • Use compression elastic bandages to help reduce swelling. Firmly bandage the area, but not too tight. Numbness, tingling, swelling below the bandage, and increased pain are signs that the bandage is too tight.
  • Elevate the area on pillows or other soft objects to reduce the blood pressure at the area and reduce the swelling.

Over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen sodium are often helpful for pain and swelling; let your physician know if you experience side effects such as stomach upset with these medications. High doses of these medications should be needed only for a few days.

Once the pain and swelling are gone, begin gentle stretching, strengthening, and balance exercises, gradually increasing the duration of the exercise. Stop immediately if pain or swelling recurs and resume RICE.

When to Seek Professional Help

  • You have severe pain and cannot put any weight on the injured area.
  • The area over the injury or next to it is very tender when you touch it.
  • The injured area looks crooked or has lumps and bumps.
  • You cannot move the injured joint.
  • You have numbness in any part of the injured area.
  • You see redness or red streaks spreading out from the injury.
  • You injure an area that has been injured several times before.
  • You have a fever and the area affected appears inflamed (swollen and warm).
  • The symptoms continue for more than a couple weeks without improvement.

For more serious injuries, you may be referred to a sports medicine physician or an orthopedic surgeon. Your health care provider may also recommend rehabilitative physical therapy.

You may be anxious for your injury to heal so you can get back to your sport, work, and daily routines, but rushing your recovery can put you at risk for future injury and may extend the healing process. Take your health care provider’s instructions seriously, and don’t put your health at risk by returning to activities too soon.

Treating a Headache

Most people experience a headache from time to time. Always seek medical care if you have chronic headaches or headaches that disrupt your normal routines. Immediately seek care if you have a sudden severe headache, headache with stiff neck, one that worsens or is unresponsive to treatment, or a headache after an injury or fall.

For most minor occasional headaches and tension headaches, the following can help:

  • Over-the-counter medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen
  • Cold compress on your forehead
  • Resting in a darkened or dim room
  • Small quantity of caffeine
  • Stress management like stretching, breathing exercises, listening to quiet relaxing music
  • Peppermint and ginger—some people find comfort from inhaling peppermint tea or peppermint oils. Others find relief by taking ginger.

Treating a Sore Throat

Sore throats often accompany colds or allergies. Seek medical care if you have a sore throat that doesn’t improve or accompanies a fever, your symptoms worsen, or it is very painful to swallow.

  • Drink plenty of fluids to help keep your throat moist.
  • Use a saltwater gargle prepared with warm water.
  • Suck on a lozenge or hard candy.
  • Consume warm liquids or tea with honey.
  • Use humidity like a steamy shower or cool air humidifier in your room to mitigate irritants.
  • Eat cold foods like popsicles to soothe the throat.
  • Take over-the-counter medications to help with pain.
  • Get rest, including vocal rest.

Is it a cold or flu?

Treating a Common Cold

Most people experience colds two to four times a year. Colds are viral illnesses and cannot be cured by over-the-counter medications. Antibiotics do not cure colds either, since they are for bacterial infections, not viral infections.

Treatments like those below can help alleviate symptoms. Seek medical care if your symptoms accompany a fever, don’t improve with time, or worsen.

If needed take:

  • An over-the-counter pain medication and fever reducer like acetaminophen or aspirin
  • Decongestant containing pseudoephedrine to help dry nasal passages and relieve congestion. Just check with your medical provider to make sure these medications don’t interfere with any existing medical conditions or medications you take. Decongestant sprays can also be used but for only a few days because they can make your symptoms worse.
  • Cough suppressants if you are having trouble sleeping due to a cough
  • Expectorants like guaifenesin which can thin mucus and ease cough and congestion
  • Steps to treat a sore throat

You can also relieve symptoms by:

  • Staying hydrated by consuming clear liquids and broths.
  • Using a cool mist humidifier, a steamy shower, or a warm cup of tea or broth to provide some humidity to your nasal passages.
  • Getting more rest.
  • Considering zinc. Some research indicates that zinc can be a helpful supplement when taken in the first day of symptoms to reduce the duration of a cold.
  • Using aromatherapy like peppermint or lavender. The steam from a good cup of herbal tea can help clear passages and keep you hydrated, so it may be worth a try.

Treating a Fever

Fever can accompany many illnesses and is your body’s way of fighting off infection. If you have a fever and are feeling uncomfortable, you can try the following:

  • Take a fever-reducing over-the-counter medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Get plenty of rest.

Seek medical care if you have an existing chronic medical condition or your fever is not responding to fever-reducing medications, lasts longer than a couple of days or accompanies other symptoms that make you feel uncomfortable.

Self-Care Checklist for Minor Illnesses and Injuries

It may be helpful to have the following items on hand just in case you get sick or injured while away at school. While many campus bookstores and convenience stores stock these items, having easy access eliminates one barrier to relief.

Self-care items to have on hand