Life is full of bumps and bruises, and even the healthiest among us suffer
the occasional headache,
sore throat or skin rash. Usually, your immune system resolves these problems
with a little time and
TLC—perhaps with the help of an over-the-counter remedy.
However, from time to time, you may have symptoms that trigger concern
or worry. It doesn’t make
sense to live in fear, so here are a few tips for when you should definitely
seek medical attention.
General symptoms that should prompt medical attention
- Sudden onset of severe symptoms, such as pain, fever or bleeding
- The problem persists long after you think it should have resolved
- Common symptoms are accompanied by additional symptoms (that may not seem
to be related), such as a headache with vision disturbances or trouble speaking
- Blood when you cough, vomit, urinate or move your bowels
- Trouble breathing
When to worry: headaches
There are 300 types of headaches, only 10% of which have a known cause.
Three-fourths of them are tension headaches, which usually presents as
a dull, squeezing pain on both sides of head. You should
seek medical advice if the headache is unusually severe or is getting steadily worse, causes
changes in personality or functioning, is accompanied by neurological
symptoms (visual impairments or slurred speech), occurs after a blow to
the head, prevents normal activities, or comes on suddenly or is extreme.
You should also be concerned if the headache is vastly different from
other headaches you've experienced, or if you suddenly develop them
after age 50.
Why worry? A severe headache can be sign of stroke, tumor, blood clot,
aneurysm, or a hemorrhage in the brain.
When to worry: skin changes
While dry skin is common during the winter months, dry, itchy skin could
be a symptom of eczema or psoriasis. An unexplained rash may be hives,
which are usually caused by an allergic reaction, stress, or an infection.
If you see a new mole or a change in an existing mole, see a dermatologist
right away, as atypical moles are more likely to develop into melanoma.
Keep in mind the ABCD's of melanoma detection: Asymmetry, Border,
When to worry: heavy menstrual bleeding
If you are bleeding for more than 7 days, or have to change your pad or
tampon every two hours or less, you should
seek medical advice. It may be symptom of a bleeding disorder, or other uterine or hormone-related problem.
When to worry: sore throats
Sore throats are among the most common reason for doctors' visits.
They are often caused by viruses, bacteria, allergies, or runny nose drainage.
If you have a sudden onset of severely sore, red throat; pain when swallowing;
pus on your tonsils; or if it's accompanied by fever, chills, stomachache,
or a red, sandpaper like rash on chest or neck, you should
seek medical attention.
When to worry: urinary symptoms
If you have a persistent, strong urge to urinate; experience a burning
sensation when urinating; produce frequent, small amounts of urine; cloudy,
red, bright-pink, or cola-colored urine; or if it's strong smelling
or is accompanied by pelvic pain, you should
call your doctor or visit an urgent care.
One of the most common causes of the above symptoms is a Urinary Tract
Infection (UTI.) A UTI is an inflammation in any part of urinary system—kidney,
ureter, bladder, urethra—and it's more common in women than
men, especially women post-menopause. If a UTI spreads to the kidney,
it can be serious, so take care of yourself before then!
When to worry: heartburn
Your heart and esophagus are close to each other and you could easily mistake
symptoms of one for the other. Both heartburn and heart attacks can cause
chest pain, and both can cause symptoms that don’t go away. Heartburn
symptoms usually happen after eating or while lying down or bending. Occasional
heartburn is not usually a cause for concern. Prolonged heartburn can
lead to Barrett’s esophagus, which is a risk factor for esophageal
seek medical care if your heartburn is chronic. If you belch and the pain goes away, it's
probably not your heart!
However, if your chest pain is accompanied by shortness of breath, sweating,
CALL 911 immediately, as you may be having a heart attack.
When to worry: abdominal pain
Your abdomen is home to more than just your stomach, so abdominal pain
can be caused by a variety of reasons. It may just be indigestion, but
it could be a signal that one of the other organs is causing problems,
such as your appendix or gall bladder. You should
seek medical attention when you experience a sudden, sharp pain; when abdominal pain is accompanied
by pain in chest, neck, or shoulder; if you are vomiting blood, or have
blood in your stool; if your abdomen is stiff, hard, tender to the touch;
or if you can’t move bowels, especially if you are also vomiting.
When to worry: unexplained weight loss
Make an appointment with your doctor if you or a loved one has lost 10 pounds OR 5% of normal body weight over
6 to 12 months for no known reason (i.e. you aren't on a diet), or
if you also have other symptoms accompanying the weight loss. Unexplained
weight loss could be due to many reasons, such as depression, cancer,
diabetes*, COPD, anxiety, or chronic digestive problems.
*Other signs of diabetes include excessive thirst or hunger, excessive
urination, itchy skin, dark skin around the neck and armpits, slow healing
of cuts and bruises, yeast infections, unusual fatigue, mood changes,
including irritability, and vision changes.
When to worry: cough
Coughs are a natural reflux, helping to clear the lungs of irritants, and
while they help prevent infections, a cough that persists can be a sign
of a medical problem. An acute cough is defined as one that lasts less
than three weeks, usually due to a cold or a respiratory infection such
as flu, pneumonia, or whooping cough. A chronic cough lasts more than
three weeks, and can often accompany conditions such as asthma or GERD.
Other possible causes of cough are chronic bronchitis, COPD, lung cancer,
heart failure, and certain medications.
The best way to treat a cough is by treating the cause.
Don't give children under age 4 over-the-counter cough medicine without
first checking with your child's doctor.
To ease your cough, try these tips:
Suck cough drops or hard candies. They may ease a dry cough and soothe
an irritated throat.
Don't give them to a child under age 6, however, because of the risk
Take honey. A teaspoon of honey can help loosen a cough.
Don't give to children younger than 1 year old.
- Moisturize the air. Use a vaporizer or take a steamy shower.
- Drink fluids. Liquid helps thin the mucus in your throat. Warm liquids,
such as broth tea or lemon juice, can soothe your throat.
- Avoid tobacco smoke. Smoking or breathing secondhand smoke can make your
Seek medical attention if you or your child is coughing up thick, greenish-yellow phlegm, is
wheezing, experiencing a fever more than 100°F, or is experiencing
shortness of breath.
Seek emergency care if you or your child is choking, having difficulty breathing or swallowing,
or is coughing up bloody or pink-tinged phlegm.
When to worry: sleep problems
Lack of sleep can make you irritable and impatient, decrease concentration,
compromise your safety on the road or at work, and can lead to health
problems. Most sleep disorders can be successfully treated or controlled
once properly diagnosed, but the first step is identifying the problem.
Some common sleep disorders are:
Insomnia—inability to fall or stay asleep
Sleep Apnea (Obstructive Sleep Apnea)—the person stops breathing briefly throughout the night, disrupting
the sleep cycle. People with OSA are at risk for other health problems,
such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and mood and memory problems.
Obesity is a risk factor, so losing weight may help. Continuous positive
airway pressure (CPAP) is the first line of treatment for moderate to
severe cases of OSA. During sleep, the CPAP device keeps the airway open
by sending a constant, low-pressure stream of air through the nose and
into the airway. Dental devices, which are designed to reposition the
lower jaw in a way that keeps the airway open, work well in some individuals
with mild to moderate OSA.
Narcolepsy—excessive daytime drowsiness, sudden loss of muscle tone. Often,
people with narcolepsy have other sleep disorders such as OSA or insomnia.
See your doctor if you have trouble falling asleep on a consistent basis, have trouble
staying asleep, awaken earlier than you wish, feel un-refreshed after
sleep, or suffer from excessive sleepiness during the day.
When to worry: mental health
If you notice the following symptoms in a loved one or in yourself,
see your doctor for an evaluation:
- Marked changes in personality, eating or sleeping patterns
- An inability to cope with problems or daily activities
- Extreme mood swings or excessive anger, hostility or violent behavior
- Strange or grandiose ideas
- Excessive anxiety
- Prolonged depression or apathy
- Thinking or talking about suicide
- Substance abuse