Television ads used to be low-tech and extremely cheesy, in case you weren’t aware. As a youngster in the 1960s and 1970s, I remember watching Preparation H commercials. The “H” stood for a word no one wanted to see or hear over the airwaves in those days: hemorrhoids. A crude line drawing of a person’s silhouette would feature a flashing red X or circle marking the “delicate” spot where this product promised immediate relief from the “burning and itching” of this unpleasant medical condition.
Youthful me asked my mom what all this was about. She said she would explain it when I got older because it was unlikely I would need to use it at my tender age.
Fast forward several decades – okay, more than four – and today’s ads have come a long way, baby, to get where they’ve got to today (that was the slogan for Virginia Slims women’s cigarettes, by the way). Check out this 15-second short commercial for the same product. Thank goodness advertisers figured out that humor sells better than warnings of impending pain.
As you can see, modern ads, like their older counterparts, are vague and indefinite about this legitimate medical condition – so let’s get down to the basics: the Mayo Clinic says that hemorrhoids are “swollen veins in your lower rectum. Internal hemorrhoids are usually painless, but tend to bleed. External hemorrhoids may cause pain.”
Another word for hemorrhoids is piles. They are clumps of dilated (enlarged) blood vessels. When the veins in the anus or rectum swell and stretch, they become irritated. (The rectum is the last bit of the large intestine before it exits to the anus. The anus is the end of the digestive tract where feces leaves the body.)
Hemorrhoids are quite common. It is estimated that 75 percent of the adult population will have them from time to time.
You might get piles from chronic diarrhea or chronic constipation, repetitive heavy lifting, obesity, genetics, anal intercourse – or simply sitting too long.
If a clot forms in a hemorrhoid, it is termed “thrombosed” and may require lancing (piercing with a sharp needle) and draining. Although not particularly dangerous, thrombosed hemorrhoids are quite painful.
The good news is that hemorrhoids can be treated successfully. Treating them as soon as they appear is recommended.
Women are more likely to get hemorrhoids when they are pregnant, and my mom was right: older folks are more likely to get piles. A study reported by SciELO indicates that “almost 50% of the people over the age of fifty.”
Hemorrhoids are nothing new, and home remedies abound. Among them:
Topical creams and ointments that can be purchased without a prescription (over the counter or OTC) and applied to the irritated areas, such as hydrocortisone or hemorrhoid cream
Ice packs and cold compresses
A warm-water sitz bath placed over the toilet (available at some pharmacies or online) – soak for 10-15 minutes daily
Moist towelettes (rather than dry toilet paper)
Pain-reducing analgesics (e.g., aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen)
Pads (worn against the skin for external hemorrhoids)
Suppositories (inserted into the rectum for internal hemorrhoids)
Loose, cotton clothing
For cases of hemorrhoids that don’t respond to home therapy, your doctor can administer a nonsurgical treatment. Options include:
Rubber band ligation – an outpatient procedure for internal hemorrhoids where an elastic band positioned at the base of the hemorrhoid cuts off the blood supply, causing the hemorrhoid to shrink or fall off.
Sclerotherapy – another therapy for internal hemorrhoids involves injecting a solution that forms a scar which cuts off the blood supply to the hemorrhoid. This shot does not hurt very much.
Infrared photocoagulation and electrocoagulation – an infrared light, electric probe, or laser beam makes a small burn that removes tissue and painlessly seals the end of the hemorrhoid, causing it to close off and shrink.
For complete and immediate removal, a surgeon can perform a hemorrhoidectomy. An operation of this type may be required for very large internal hemorrhoids or extremely uncomfortable external hemorrhoids.
If you have bloody stool, please go see a doctor for a check-up. You might have an internal hemorrhoid and not even know it. Although this condition may well heal itself, it is possible that something else is causing rectal bleeding, such as inflammatory bowel disease, infection or tumors.
The prevailing wisdom is that diet plays a key role in the formation of hemorrhoids. Eat fiber-rich foods (like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) to keep your stool soft. Drink water and other non-alcoholic beverages daily.
Other prevention tips include not straining on the toilet to pass a bowel movement, going to the toilet when needed rather than “holding it in,” including regular physical activity in your lifestyle to avoid being too sedentary, and maintaining a healthy body weight.
Now that you know quite a bit about this touchy subject, let’s close with a blast from the past. Here’s a TV commercial for that well-known topical ointment mentioned at the beginning of this article: enjoy!