If you met an accident and were bleeding heavily, you probably wouldn’t think twice about seeking immediate medical care. The same goes if you suddenly doubled over with stomach pain or felt severe pressure or pain in your chest that wouldn’t go away. But what happens when you experience symptoms that don’t seem quite so alarming or are just a bit out of the ordinary?
While you don’t need to rush to the doctor with every unexplained muscle twinge or upset stomach, you also don’t want to ignore symptoms that could lead to early treatment before a condition becomes life-threatening. You’re going to have better outcomes if you seek early treatment. You can’t sit back and assume everything will get better on its own.
If certain symptoms appear, you should see your primary physician. He/she can either determine what the problem is or refer you to the right specialist for a diagnosis. Your doctor would know, for example, whether to send you to a cardiologist or a pulmonologist, depending on your symptoms.
Here are 10 warning signs that you should take seriously. You may find some of the symptoms on the following list a bit surprising. Being aware of their possible significance and seeking timely medical care could make a difference in your quality of life and, in certain instances, even possibly save your life.
1) Trouble seeing, speaking or moving. Numbness or paralysis on one side of your body, difficulty speaking, and blurred or decreased vision are considered classic signs of a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA), a “ministroke” that can sometimes last for only a few minutes. If you suddenly experience one or all of these symptoms, get immediate emergency care. If you’re having a stroke, quick treatment can reduce your risk of brain damage and other stroke complications. If the problem is a TIA, you may be able to take measures to prevent a future stroke. Also, don’t ignore other unusual signs and symptoms such as fainting, shortness of breath or sudden feeling of facial pain, tiredness or a racing heartbeat (palpitations).
2) A sudden excruciating headache. This is especially true for new or more-severe headaches, especially over age 50. Don’t write off any headache that comes on suddenly, like a thunderbolt, and causes severe, excruciating pain. Any such headache is considered a medical emergency because of its possible causes, which include aneurysm, bleeding in the brain, stroke, blood vessel inflammation, meningitis, and a brain tumor. Also, get medical care for any headache that follows a head injury or is accompanied by a fever, stiff neck, numbness or speaking difficulties.
3) Unexplained weight loss. Trying to lose weight is one thing. But if you find you’re losing excessive weight without intending to do so, see your doctor. Unintended excessive weight loss is considered to be a loss:
• Of more than five percent of your weight in one month, or
• Of more than 10 percent of your weight within six to 12 months.
An unexplained drop in weight may be due to a number of different conditions, such as an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism), depression, liver disease, cancer or other noncancerous conditions, or disorders that interfere with how well your body absorbs nutrients (malabsorption syndrome).
4) Shortness of breath. It’s normal to have minor breathing difficulty through your nose if you have severe nasal congestion. Strenuous exercise can also result in some breathlessness. However, if you ever find you’re unable to get your breath or that you’re gasping for air or wheezing, seek emergency medical care. Feeling breathless with or without exertion or when reclining is also a symptom that needs to be evaluated without delay by your doctor. Causes for breathlessness range considerably. Some causes include chronic obstructive pulmonary disorders, such as chronic bronchitis, asthma, heart failure, anxiety, panic attacks, pneumonia, a blood clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism), pulmonary fibrosis, and pulmonary hypertension.
5) Persistent fever. If your immune system is normal and you’re not on drugs such as chemotherapy for cancer, even a persistent low-grade fever should be evaluated if it lasts for a week or more. If you have a fever associated with violent chills, or a high fever, or you’re severely ill in any other way, get evaluated right away by your physician. For people with an immune system problem or who are taking immune-suppressing drugs, fever may not be a reliable sign and your primary doctor or oncologist can tell you what would signal a need for an evaluation.
Persistent fever can also be due to hidden infections, which could be anything from a urinary tract infection to tuberculosis. At other times, malignant conditions — such as lymphomas — could cause prolonged or persistent fevers, as can other medications and conditions, and reactions to certain drugs. Fever is common with treatable infections, such as urinary tract infections. But if a low-grade fever persists for more than two weeks, further evaluation is in order. Some underlying cancers cause prolonged, persistent fever, as can tuberculosis and other disorders.
6) Dizziness. Make an appointment with your doctor for a diagnosis. Feeling dizzy when you get out of bed in the morning is called orthostatic hypotension. It is caused by a drop in blood pressure, which can be due to conditions such as dehydration, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, heart failure, or certain medications — including diuretics and blood pressure medicines. Another possibility is benign postural vertigo, which is caused by a disturbance within the balance organs of the inner ear.
7) Unexplained changes in bowel habits. See your doctor if you have any of the following:
• Severe diarrhea lasting more than two days
• Mild diarrhea lasting a week
• Constipation that lasts more than two weeks
• Unexplained urges to have a bowel movement
Bloody diarrhea needs prompt medical attention. If you have black or tarry-colored stools, medical attention is also required. Bowel habit changes may signal the presence of bacterial infection, such as campylobacter or salmonella, viral infection or parasitic infection. Among other possible causes are inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer.
8. Sad or depressed mood. Everyone gets the blues from time to time. But if you feel sad for weeks or months, you may be experiencing depression. Other signs and symptoms that can accompany depression are loss of interest in normal activities, feeling hopeless or worthless, crying easily, trouble focusing or concentrating, difficulty making decisions, unintentional weight gain or loss, or thoughts of wanting to die. If you’re experiencing these problems, call your doctor for an evaluation. Depression isn’t a sign of weakness, a normal part of aging, or something to be ashamed of. It is a medical illness that is treatable.
9. Flashes of light. The sudden sensation of flashing lights may signal the beginning of retinal detachment. Immediate medical care may be needed to save vision in the affected eye. While it may only be due to posterior vitreous detachment (PVD), which is usually not a threat to sight and requires no treatment, the eye needs to be carefully examined by an ophthalmologist to be sure there’s no accompanying retinal tear. About 15 percent of eyes that develop PVD with symptoms of floaters and flashes will have a retinal tear that requires urgent treatment to prevent retinal detachment, which may cause partial or possibly, total vision loss in that eye. Treatment of retinal tear may be by laser photocoagulation or cryotherapy. Usually, it will prevent retinal detachment, which frequently develops if a tear is not treated. Retinal detachment requires more complex surgery.
10) Persistent cough. You can usually recognize the kind of coughs associated with a cold or flu. They often respond to over-the-counter or prescription medications, and after a week or two, they usually subside. But if a cough lingers too long, see your doctor. It may be caused by an underlying problem such as asthma, gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), a respiratory tract infection, chronic bronchitis, tuberculosis, or even lung cancer. Some blood pressure drugs can also cause chronic cough. If you have a cough that lingers for more than a month, is affecting your sleep or brings up blood or sputum, a medical checkup is in order.
The take-home message is this: Take quick action when you have any of these 10 warning signs. It may save your life!- AN APPLE A DAY By TYRONE M. REYES, M.D., Philippine Star