Hesperian Health Guides

Preventing common health problems

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HealthWiki > A Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities > Chapter 5: Taking care of your body > Preventing common health problems

Because you know and understand your body better than anyone else does, you can teach your family members, friends, and caregivers how they can best help you. Do not be afraid or ashamed to ask them for assistance if you have a problem. Although it is not always possible to prevent illness, most health problems will not become serious if they are treated early. If possible, try to get regular health exams.

Daily care

You can stay healthy and prevent infections by washing your body every day and checking your skin regularly. If you sit or do not move very much for most of the day, you must be extra careful to check your skin to make sure it is healthy. Look for swelling, redness, or other signs of infection.

a woman using a mirror to look at the back of her legs.
Examine your skin every day.

If you find scratches, cuts, or sores, wash and cover or bandage them so they do not get worse. You can use a mirror to help you look at hard-to-see places. Many blind women learn to check for sores or other warning signs by smell or by touch.

a blind woman smelling vaginal discharge on her fingers.
A change in the smell of the discharge from your vagina can mean you have an infection.

Wash your hair regularly, and check it often for lice. Also check the skin on your head for wounds or scabs. And try to wear clean clothes every day, especially your underclothes and socks.

Some women with disabilities have to pay attention to "minor" signs to tell when they have a health problem. For example, a woman who has an infection in her womb may not be able to feel pain from it. But she may notice an unusual discharge or smell from her vagina. A blind woman may not see that a cut is becoming a serious infection. But she may be able to feel some pain and swelling.

Care of the feet and hands

If you do not have much feeling in your feet and hands, be careful to protect them. Look for cuts and sores every day. It is easy to burn your feet or hands if you cannot feel them. Or you may get a sore or cut without feeling it. If you find a sore or a cut, keep it clean and covered until the injury has healed.

Protect the parts of your body that cannot feel heat or cold. Protect your hands with thick gloves or a folded cloth while picking up anything hot. And if you live where the weather gets very cold, cover your hands and feet to protect them.

a woman looking at a sore on the bottom of her foot.

Use a small mirror to see the bottoms of your feet. Or ask someone else to help you. Look for:

  • redness, swelling, hot skin, or other signs of infection.
  • cracks, sores, or broken skin.
  • pus, bleeding, or bad smells.
  • ingrown toenails (the edge of the nail is stuck inside the skin).

If you feel pain, tingling, burning, or have no feeling (numbness) in your feet, talk with a health worker. You may have an infection and need medicines to make it heal.

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To help prevent infection, wash your feet every day with soap and warm water. First, check the water temperature with your elbow where you have more feeling, or ask someone with good feeling to check that it is not too hot for you. Dry your feet well especially between the toes.
If the skin on your feet gets dry or begins to crack, soak your feet in water for 20 minutes every day. Then rub vegetable oil, petroleum jelly (Vaseline), or lotion into them.

Other ways to protect your feet:

  • Do not go barefoot.
  • Cut your toenails straight across, not rounded, so they will not grow into your skin (ingrown toenail). And do not let them get so long that they catch and tear. Ask someone to help you if necessary.
  • Make sure your shoes fit well and do not rub the skin and cause blisters or red areas.
  • Check inside your shoes before you put them on for things that could irritate your feet, such as small rocks, thorns, dirt, or insects.
  • Do not sit with your legs crossed. This makes it harder for the blood to flow to your feet.
  • Do not cut corns, calluses, or hard skin from your feet. This can lead to an infection.
  • Wear socks. Make sure socks are smooth and do not rub against your feet. If you need to mend holes in your socks, try to make the stitches very smooth.
  • In hot climates, try to sit with your feet uncovered as often as possible during the day. This helps your blood circulation and helps prevent skin infection between your toes.

Women with leprosy (Hansen's disease) must take special care to protect their feet from injury and infection. Because leprosy causes a loss of feeling in legs and feet, women who have leprosy are less likely to feel pain, itching, or other signs of a problem when it is still small and easy to treat.

Women with leprosy often have a hard time holding things. To make it easier to hold onto things and prevent injuries, use or make tools with wide, smooth handles, or wrap thick cloth around the handles.

a screwdriver and a frying pan with wide, smooth handles.
a spoon and a pencil with wide, smooth handles.

To make a handle:
You can mold a handle to the shape of the person's closed hand.

Use epoxy putty, or plaster of paris mixed with a strong glue. Have the person grip the handle while it is still soft. Then let it harden.

You can also make a handle with clay, or wrap several layers of thick leaves, such as banana leaves, or corn husks around the handle.

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Sometimes dentists refuse to care for people with cerebral palsy. But it is very important that all people get good care for their teeth.

Care of the mouth and teeth

Women who have a hard time controlling or moving the muscles in their mouth and tongue, or their hands and arms, such as women with cerebral palsy, may find it difficult to clean their teeth and gums. But if teeth are not cleaned regularly, any food that sticks to them or the gums can cause decay. If necessary, ask someone you trust to help you.

Women with epilepsy (seizures, "fits")

a woman with swollen gums.
Medicine for epilepsy can make gums swollen and sore, almost covering the teeth. Keeping your teeth clean can help prevent this.

If you use the medicine phenytoin (diphenylhydantoin, Dilantin) to prevent seizures, it can cause your gums to swell and grow large. Taking good care of your mouth can prevent much of the swelling.

Try to clean your teeth carefully after each meal and rinse your mouth with clean water. Take special care to clean between your teeth. It also helps to massage your gums with a clean finger.

Toothpaste is not necessary to clean your teeth. Some people use baking soda or salt instead. If you have a toothbrush, it is the brush hairs that do the cleaning, so water on the brush is enough. Use a brush with soft hairs. A brush that is stiff and hard will hurt the gums, not help them. Be careful if you use a chewing stick. Some wood is very hard and can hurt and damage the gums. The soft wood from the neem tree (which grows in many hot countries) works well. You can also wrap clean cloth around the pointed end of a small stick or toothpick and use it to carefully clean the teeth one at a time.

Care of the eyes

Wash your face every day with mild soap and clean water. This will help prevent eye infections such as pinkeye (conjunctivitis). This infection causes redness, pus, and mild ‘burning’ in one or both eyes. The eyelids often stick together after sleep. Most conjunctivitis is very contagious. The infection is easily spread from one eye to the other, and from one person to another.

Do not use the same towel or cloth as someone who has an eye infection. And always wash your hands before and after touching your eyes. Keep flies away from the eyes. Flies can spread infection from one person to another.


ointment from a tube being put inside a lower eyelid.

First clean pus from the eyes with a clean cloth moistened with water that has been boiled and cooled. Then put in erythromycin eye ointment. Pull down the lower lid and put a little bit of ointment inside, like this. Putting ointment outside the eye does no good.

CAUTION: Do not touch the tube against the eye.

If you have leprosy

Some disabilities, such as leprosy, make it more likely a person will develop vision problems or get an eye infection.

If you have leprosy, the muscles around the eyes may be weak, or may not have much feeling. This means that your eyes may not blink enough on their own. Not blinking can cause dryness and eye infection.

If you do not blink often, or if your eyes are red, you can:

  • wear sunglasses, especially sunglasses that wrap around the sides of the face.
  • wear a hat with a wide brim to shade your eyes.
  • close your eyes tightly many times during the day.
  • close your eyes tightly and roll your eyes upward frequently.
  • wash the skin around your eyes often.
a woman with an eye patch tied around her head.

If pus forms, follow the treatment information for pinkeye. Keep the eye closed as much as you can. If necessary, cover it with an eye patch.

You can make a patch with any clean soft cloth or gauze and tie it around the head (not too tightly) to keep it in place,

or tape the cloth or gauze to the eye like this. a woman with a square of gauze taped over her eye.

Do not press on the eye.

If you cannot close your eyelids ('lid lag'), tape your eye closed with clean cloth or gauze to prevent dryness and infection.

To keep your eyes moist and help prevent infection, each day put a few drops of clean salty water (a pinch of salt to one cup or glass of clean water) into each eye.