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What you can teach your kids about looking after their health

Medical experts want children to be taught self-care so they treat minor ailments, writes Lisa Salmon

Avoid Dr Google: don’t go online to diagnose illnesses
Avoid Dr Google: don’t go online to diagnose illnesses

By Lisa Salmon

While learning academic subjects like maths and science will make children more rounded and possibly help set them up for a job, one thing's for sure - it won't help them look after their day-to-day health.

Although they can learn to cook at school, children currently don't learn crucial life skills like how to spot the symptoms of common illnesses and understand where to go to get treatment if necessary.

Now, the consumer healthcare association PAGB (www.pagb.co.uk) is calling for self-care to be included as a mandatory part of school health education and the organisation's chief executive John Smith says: "As people grow from children into adults, we hope they have the opportunity to learn the knowledge and skills to look after themselves effectively. However, a lot of evidence suggests the contrary - that too many people don't know how to manage their own health and well-being."

In England alone, health literacy - understanding information about your health - is worryingly low, and it's estimated up to 61% of adults don't understand key information related to their health.

Research shows this lack of understanding means people are more likely to have a long-term health condition which can limit their activities.

Smith, whose organisation represents the manufacturers of branded over-the-counter medicines, self-care medical devices and food supplements in the UK, argues six self-care messages should be included as a core part of the curriculum.

The effect, he says, would be to: "Empower the adults of tomorrow with the information they need to self-care appropriately and reduce unnecessary demands on GPs and hospital services."

Here are six things children should learn:

1. How to identify symptoms of self-treatable conditions

Children should learn what the symptoms of self-treatable conditions like coughs and colds are, says the PAGB. So, for example, they might be taught that cold symptoms usually come on gradually, affecting mainly the nose and throat and leaving sufferers feeling unwell but able to continue with normal activities, whereas flu can appear within a few hours, affects more than just the nose and throat and makes people feel exhausted and too ill to carry on as normal.

"We'd like to see children being taught about minor ailments and how to recognise their common symptoms," says Smith. "It's important people understand what the normal symptoms are, to help identify when it's appropriate to self care and when advice from a healthcare professional should be sought."

2. How long self-treatable conditions last

Evidence suggests people aren't aware of the normal duration of self-treatable conditions and can give up on self-care too early. PAGB research has shown, for example, that 71% of people believe a cold should last for three to six days, when it's actually normal to experience symptoms for seven to 10 days.

3. Which conditions to treat using over-the-counter medicines

Coughs, colds, headaches, migraine, backache and sprains are just a few of the self-treatable conditions with symptoms that can be managed at home using over-the-counter (OTC) medicines bought from retailers and pharmacies. OTC medicine uses and benefits are clear on packaging and all necessary information is included in patient information leaflets.

"Children should be taught to read and understand this information so when they get older they feel confident in managing self-treatable conditions," says Smith. It could help them to learn, for example, that it's important not to use cough and cold medicines if you're already taking paracetamol and ibuprofen tablets, as the cough and cold medicines may contain paracetamol or ibuprofen and it's easy to take more than the recommended dose.

4. Be wary of Dr Google

While there are vast amounts of easily-accessible health information on the internet, using Google to identify symptoms can often be risky and misleading, warns the PAGB, which points out that many people incorrectly interpret health information they find on the internet.

"This is something health professionals have become only too aware of, as patients become overly concerned and expect the worst regarding their often minor conditions," says Smith. "Children should be equipped with the skills to critically evaluate health information to enable them to make appropriate choices about their health and well-being."

5. Where to go for advice and treatment

Many people aren't aware pharmacists can provide useful information on over-the-counter medicines and treatments, says the PAGB.

Research has found 47% of people wouldn't visit a pharmacist in the first instance for advice about a self-treatable condition, despite this being the most appropriate and fastest way of accessing expert advice.

"This demonstrates that more needs to be done to educate people on how pharmacists can help them and we believe this should start in schools," stresses Smith.

6. Understanding different healthcare professional roles

There are an estimated 18 million GP appointments every year for conditions such as backache, blocked noses and travel sickness which could be treated with OTC medicines at home.

Smith says: "Children need to understand the difference between NHS services and the role and expertise of different healthcare professionals.

"As well as ensuring they seek advice from the right professional at the right time to meet their needs, it's important to understand the impact on the NHS if they go to the GP or A&E when they don't really need to."

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