Severe chest pain, loss of speech or vision, profuse bleeding, or sudden physical trauma, are definite signs requiring one to seek medical attention immediately. But what about the signs and symptoms that are not as obvious? It can be difficult to decide what to do.
Breathlessness, thirstiness, and even snoring may seem usual or “normal” for you, but in certain cases, they can actually be signals for you to see a doctor ASAP. It helps to know the difference between having only (likely) subtle issues and when it is wise to get scheduled for medical evaluation.
Here’s a list of 15 subtle red flags or signs and symptoms that may need urgent medical attention:
1. Breathlessness/ shortness of breath or fast breathing.
Shortness of breath is normal if caused by strenuous exercise, high altitude, extreme temperatures, and obesity; but if you feel severe, worsening, or sudden breathlessness (you find it difficult to talk or breathe when exerting yourself or lying flat) and you have a fever or swollen/ painful leg, then it could be a sign of allergic reaction, panic attack disorder, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung), pneumonia, bronchitis, or other lung and heart related issues.
2. Fever (persistent or high).
Fever is normal only if your body is fighting off infections such as inflammation or flu or if you are taking certain medications. However, if your fever has already been going on for more than 3 days, if you have convulsions, or if your temperature is 39.4 C (103 F) or higher, then it could be a sign of tuberculosis, urinary tract infection, or in some cases, lymphomas or other malignant cancerous conditions.
3. Loss of consciousness, listlessness, lethargy, dizziness or lightheadedness.
Passing out during exercise or suddenly without prior warning symptoms especially with palpitations, shortness of breath, chest/abdominal pain, or headache may be a sign of more a serious condition especially stroke or TIA/ Transient ischemic attack (mini-Stroke).
4. Headaches (sudden, new, severe).
Some headaches are normal but if a headache is caused by a recent fall, injury, or trauma or if associated with other neurological symptoms (such as dizziness/ severe nausea, seizure, confusion, visual changes, falling or sudden loss of balance, weakness, tingling or numbness, stiff neck, difficulty chewing, shortness of breath, headache, fever and vomiting), then it may be a sign that you need to seek physician care immediately. Sudden headaches or one that awakens you when sleeping as well as those occurring more than three times a week are signs that there is something more serious.
5. Numbness, swelling or weakness in the legs, loss of balance, unsteadiness.
If sudden and unexplained, difficulty walking and related signs or symptoms can also be serious signs of stroke or mini-Stroke (TIA/ Transient ischemic attack) or another serious condition.
6. Mental confusion, irritability or sudden personality changes, persistent depression/sadness, loss of interest in normal/day-to-day activities, anxiety, hallucinations.
If you have difficulty focusing or shifting or sustaining your attention, if you have poor thinking skills, experience sudden behavior changes, or if you feel unsafe at home or you want to hurt yourself or someone else, these could be signs of a serious mental condition (especially if a history of abuse or alcohol or substance consumption is also present). Milder causes include poor nutrition, medications, or an infection.
7. Light flashes, eyesight changes, or momentary vision loss.
Sudden flashes of light or bright spots in your eyesight sometimes only indicate a migraine, however in other cases, this could signal the condition retinal detachment. To prevent permanent loss of vision seek immediate doctor’s advice. In other cases, temporary loss of vision, double vision, or blurry vision accompanied by severe eye pain, headache, or jaw pain could be signs of diabetes, glaucoma, atrial fibrillation, or hypertension.
8. Body pains: Neck pain, back pain (that is not caused by trauma or without any history of falls), abdominal / stomach pain (sudden, severe or persistent), full body ache (worsening and accompanied by weakness).
Some types of muscle or body pains can be cause of alarm such as: unexplained stiff neck, or pain when you bend your neck forward; back pain with fever and/or burning or painful urination; abdominal pain associated with trauma, lasting more than three days or occurring all of a sudden; abdominal pain accompanied by chest pain or pressure; abdominal pain with diarrhea, nausea, jaundice, vomiting, lack of appetite, or fever; abdominal pain with use of aspirin, chronic ibuprofens (or any NSAID drugs), or heavy alcohol use; and, abdominal pain that worsens after meals. In some cases pain could mean GERD, ulcer disease, or GI infections, but in other cases it could be more serious.
It terms of body ache, if it involves your entire body and you feel weak, feel soreness that gets worse with time, and if you notice dark urine, then it could be rhabdomyolysis, a severe syndrome that releases potentially toxic contents into the bloodstream, leading to kidney failure if left untreated.
9. Feeling full after eating only a very small meal.
Early satiety or feeling full sooner may be a sign of GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) or peptic ulcers, but, if you consistently experience it more than normal or it is accompanied by bloating, nausea, or vomiting, it is best to get checked by a doctor right away. It may pose a more serious health issue such as pancreatic cancer.
10. Chest pain or heartburn (serious, more than usual).
You can feel occasional bouts of heartburn because of GERD, but when the burning sensations in your chest is accompanied by indigestion or becomes more frequent, it could be a signal of something even more serious. If the discomfort is accompanied by feelings of heaviness, pressure, or squeezing in your chest, nausea, lightheadedness, fainting, feelings of dread, shortness of breath/difficulty breathing, palpitations, and sweating, or if the chest pain or pressure gets worse (with every exertion, when doing a physical activity, or when you are walking), then this could be a serious sign of angina or heart disease.
11. Heavy, sleep disruptive snoring.
Snoring could sometimes be just a simple sleep disturbance, but sometimes too it could lead to something more serious. It is best to see a specialist if you snore every single night and if you also gasp and snort while snoring. If you feel un-rested, tired, or sleepy during the day then you are probably already suffering from sleep apnea. This can lead to hypertension or high blood pressure as well as heart problems.
12. Unexplained changes in urination, bowel movement or dark/ red stool.
The following are reasons for concern and you need to seek physician’s consultation immediately: incontinence or stool/urine retention; bloody stools or bloody diarrhea; black, tarry-colored or darker colored stools than normal; “pencil thin” stool size; persistent diarrhea, persistent constipation or new onset of constipation that lasts more than two weeks; bowel movement or diarrhea accompanied by severe abdominal pain; irregular bowel movements or beyond what’s your usual bowel movements; unexplained urges to “go,” and unexpected weight loss especially if you are not on a diet. These changes in your stool or urination/bowel habits could signal irritable bowel disease, viral/ parasitic/ bacterial infections such as salmonella or campylobacter, or possibly colon cancer.
13. Thirstiness / dehydration.
When you feel thirsty then drink water and not urinate much afterwards, then you are likely dehydrated and must drink more water or it will lead to headaches or illness. If, on the other hand, you have seemingly unquenchable thirst that is accompanied by rapid weight changes and swelling in the legs, it can be a sign of heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney problems, or diabetes. If you are dehydrated and you drink some water, your body should be able to hold on to that fluid, which is not the case if you have diabetes mellitus. Thus, high blood sugar levels cause you to feel the urge to drink more but also urinate more often. You need to get yourself checked right away if you experience thirstiness along with fatigue, dizziness, nausea, and blurred vision.
14. Significant drop in weight (sudden or unexplained).
It is normal to lose weight if there are changes in your diet, activity level, overall health, or medications, but you find yourself losing a good 5% of your overall weight within just 6 months even without trying, then this could be a sign of hormonal imbalance, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, depression, liver disease, malabsorption disorders, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, or other conditions. Losing 8, 10, or 15 pounds without even trying may be a serious cause of alarm.
15. Skin rashes, freckles or brown spots (new and/or irregular-looking).
Many spots or colored freckles such as cherry angioma (bright red, small non-cancerous spots consisting of multiple small blood vessels) doesn’t mean any serious harm. However if you have sudden new or irregular brown spots, you must seek dermatologist’s advice as soon as possible. Moles or spots exhibiting multiple colors, asymmetrical shapes, scalloped or jagged edges, large size (6 mm or bigger), changing in appearance or becoming painful or itchy—need to be checked. Also, watch out for any pink rough and scaly patches as well as shiny pink growths as these could be signs of a more serious internal medical condition.