10 seemingly innocent symptoms you shouldn't ignore
Hypochondria – or reality?
Is that bump an ingrown hair – or a tumor? Is your stomach pain an exercise cramp – or appendicitis? And about that headache: dehydration – or an aneurism? "A lot of times, people are worried they have the rarest cancer you've ever heard of on the Internet," says Dr. Joshua Tobin, director of trauma anesthesiology at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. "Almost never is that the case." Phew. But too often, patients brush off seemingly benign symptoms that could signal something serious. If any of these 10 issues strike you, don't wait until it's too late to seek medical attention:
1. Unexpected indigestion
If Taco Tuesday never bothered you before, stop blaming your "heartburn" on $5 margaritas and queso dip and consider calling 911 – particularly if you have other risk factors for heart attacks, such as being over 65 years old and having high cholesterol, or if the pain feels left-sided, travels down your left arm or leaves you sweating profusely, says Dr. Ernest Brown, a family medicine physician in the District of Columbia. Adds Dr. Fred Bove, past president of the American College of Cardiology: "Indigestion is ... usually related to a digestive problem, [but] occasionally, it is a cardiac symptom that is a precursor of a heart attack."
2. Something in your eye that won't go away
While it's hard to ignore a condition like pink eye – its name says it all – one of the most serious and time-sensitive eye conditions is also one of the easier to brush off. Retinal detachment, or when the light-sensitive layer of your eye pulls away or tears, can blind you. But the symptoms – an increasing number of specks, flashes of light or a "curtain" covering your field of vision, according to the National Eye Institute – are painless and invisible to an outsider and the mirror. If you notice any of these changes, see an eye care professional immediately, NEI advises.
3. Surprise weight loss
At first, sliding more easily into your skinny jeans may come as a pleasant surprise. But losing 10 pounds or more for no clear reason – you haven't, for instance, taken your fitness regimen up a notch, started a newly diligent diet, tamed your cravings by sleeping more or even lost your appetite due to stress – can be the first sign of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Cancers of the pancreas, esophagus, stomach and lung are most often linked to unexplained weight loss.
4. Increasing – and unexplained – belly bloat
Can't quite button your pants? "When patients have weight gain, the most common reason is definitely poor dietary choices and inactivity," says Dr. Stephanie Romero, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and maternal-fetal medicine at the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine. But if those reasons don't check out with your belly's growing girth, you could have an abdominal cancer like ovarian cancer, Romero says. Abdominal swelling, Bove adds, can also be a sign of heart failure, which often causes fluid retention.
5. Painful periods
If that time of the month is excruciatingly painful, you plow through super-size tampons like nobody's business or your flow is woefully unpredictable, consider it a red flag, Romero says. Treatable but frequently undiagnosed conditions like endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome – top causes of infertility – could be to blame. Fibroids, or noncancerous tumors in the uterus, or even pregnancy might also be culrpits. Any changes in your cycle, for that matter, warrant a trip to the gynecologist, Romero says. "Any unusual pattern to menstruation deserves a mention to the gynecologist," she says, "particularly if it represents a change from what had been going on in the past."
6. Walking- or stair-climbing-induced leg cramps
Any athlete will tell you leg cramps are just the name of the game. But if the pain is tied to walking, relieved by rest and hits consistently when you stride or climb stairs, don't brush it off as soreness – those cramps could be caused by peripheral artery disease, or when blood flow to the legs gets impinged due to clogged arteries, says Bove, a member of the American College of Cardiology Patient-Centered Care Committee. If the condition goes undiagnosed, the cramps can get more painful and even lead to the loss of your leg, according to the American Heart Association. "When symptoms persist or recur," Bove says, "a medical checkup will help to find the answer."
7. New or changing moles
It's springtime in Southern California, and Tobin, who's fair-skinned, is on high alert for moles. "Ninety-nine times out of 100, it's nothing," he says, but if the mole is asymmetrical, has funky borders, different colors or is larger than a pencil eraser, visit a dermatologist who can determine whether it's melanoma. If it is and it's caught early, it's usually relatively simple to "cut out," Tobin says. Brown adds that African-Americans are particularly at risk for overlooking cancerous moles, which can even hide under toenails. "There's certain things you don't want to miss," he says, "and skin cancer is one of them because it's so aggressive."
8. Super dry skin
Maybe it's winter – or maybe it's a thyroid hormone abnormality, says Dr. Chris Adigun, a dermatologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who notes that thinning hair often accompanies this symptom when it's linked to a thyroid issue. Dry skin paired with seriously peeling nails, meantime, can be a sign of zinc deficiency. In either case, visit your primary care physician, who can identify the cause and a solution, be it supplements or simply lotion.
9. Breast changes
Puberty has passed (thank goodness), you're not breast-feeding and there's no other clear reason for your breast changes – think nipple discharge, different-looking skin, pain or a lump – so why not visit your gynecologist? "You would think people would seek care for these things, and often they do," Romero says, "but I've had patients show up with advanced-stage breast cancer who then recall having some of these changes for years." In these cases and others, better safe than sorry.
10. An unproductive cough
Coughs are annoying but harmless, right? Not quite. Patients who are on a breed of blood pressure medications called ACE inhibitors can develop "a persistent, non-productive cough that keeps them up at night," Brown says, and yet many "let it go on and on and on." It's just one example of a medication side effect that patients ignore – and of a condition that, in many cases, could have been prevented through lifestyle changes, Brown says. Tobin takes a similar stance: "Diet and exercise," he says, "is the key to a healthy and happy life."
Related: Stroke risk factors and symptoms:
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