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When you’re feeling a bit under the weather it’s only natural to want a chat with your doctor, but there could be a better first option.

If your ailment is relatively minor and not an emergency, you could get all the help you need by visiting your local pharmacist. This will not only relieve the pressure on hard-pressed GPs struggling under a heavy workload, it could also save you time and trouble. And if you do need to see a doctor after all, the pharmacist will be able to advise you on this.

While many GP practices are struggling to cope, pharmacists are generally an underused resource and an excellent first point of contact for help and advice with a wide range of lesser ailments. Pharmacists have a key role to play in providing quality healthcare. They are experts in medicines who can use their clinical expertise, together with their practical knowledge, to advise on many common problems such as coughs and colds, aches and pains, and preventative medicines and healthy living.

When considering who to see for advice on treating a minor ailment, don’t underestimate your local pharmacists. Here in the UK, pharmacists are highly trained health professionals. In order to qualify, they will have successfully completed a demanding four-year specialist university degree then worked for a further year under the supervision of an experienced and qualified pharmacist, usually in a hospital of community pharmacy. All pharmacists also have to be registered with the General Pharmaceutical Council, the regulatory body for pharmacy professionals, which ensures they operate to consistently high standards.

It is estimated that every year in the UK, 50 million visits are made to the GP for minor ailments such as coughs and colds, mild eczema and athlete’s foot. These are just a few of the many minor health problems that could be resolved by your local pharmacist.

All pharmacists can recognise many common health complaints, give advice on them and, where appropriate, suggest medicines that will help clear up the problem. If the problem is more serious and needs the attention of a GP, your pharmacist will be able to recognise this and advise you accordingly.

Using your pharmacist as a first point of call could also be far more convenient for you. You don’t need to book an appointment – just walk in and wait your turn. Many pharmacies are also open in the evenings and at weekends. Your pharmacist can also talk to you confidentially and without anything being noted in your medical records, which some people may prefer.

The range of services pharmacists offer is much bigger than just dispensing prescriptions. They can offer help and advice on your medicines and how to use them safely, and help you understand any side-effects. If you want to take an over-the-counter medicine, herbal remedy or vitamin supplement, but don’t know if it will clash with medicines you are already taking, your pharmacist will know.

They can also manage your repeat prescriptions and many pharmacies now offer a detailed consultation about your medicines called a Medicines Use Review (MUR). These confidential reviews are done in private, you don’t have to pay, and you will be given a written record of the consultation, with another copy sent to your GP. Also, if you have any out-of-date, unwanted or left over medicines you are no longer taking, don’t put them in the bin – take them to your local pharmacy who will be able to dispose of them safely.

Just a few of the minor ailments pharmacists can help with include mild skin conditions, coughs, colds, sore throats, congestion, minor cuts and bruises, constipation, haemorrhoids, hay fever, allergies, mild aches and pains, headaches, indigestion, diarrhea, wart and verrucas, mouth ulcers, cold sores, athlete’s foot, period pain and common conditions in babies such as teething and nappy rash.

If you’re not sure if you should go to your pharmacist or GP, you can call the NHS helpline on 111 for advice on which NHS service is most appropriate. And remember, if you go to your pharmacist and he or she thinks the problem is more serious, you can still go to your doctor, so you’ve nothing to lose.

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