No one knows your body better than you, but you may not always read it right. “If you think you have an emergency, then you have an emergency until proven otherwise,” says Dr. Michael G. Millin, associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Department of Emergency Medicine.
Certain mild ailments and conditions can go away on their own, but others may linger and grow without giving any signals. ”Pain is a symptom, not a disease,” he adds. When it’s just a little ache and it’s by itself, then it’s usually not a problem. “It can be concerning if it occurs simultaneously with other minor symptoms.”
The key to preventing potentially fatal incidents is to pay attention to small changes or sensations and to know when not to dismiss them because you had a busy day at work. Some things you just can’t “walk off.” You shouldn’t have to lose consciousness to be convinced to see a specialist.
Sudden and severe headaches
Most headaches are gradual, Dr. Millins says, and they are usually not a problem. Doctors get concerned when the headache is sudden and severe. “It’s what we call a thunderclap,” he adds. It feels as if your brain got hit with a thunderclap instantaneously. This kind of excruciating pain can be a sign of aneurysm and a burst blood vessel.
“People walk around all the time with aneurysm and it’s not a problem. It can happen in many places,” he adds. But it can be life-threatening when it happens in the aorta or brain and it grows to a size that weakens the blood vessel, possibly causing it to rupture.
“The headache means that the aneurysm is leaking blood,” Dr. Millins says. “A very small leak means that the vessel is becoming weak and could be a problem in the future but no one knows when – it can be hours, days, months.”
“When people have chest pain, they think the heart,” Dr. Millins says, “But we think of six other things that can cause chest pain and can be life-threatening.” They include pulmonary embolism, blood clot, collapsed lung, ruptured esophagus, fluid around the heart, and aortic dissection. The key sign is if the chest pain comes with something else.
“The most important associated symptoms are shortness of breath and fatigue,” he adds. Other signs, especially for women who often experience different symptoms than men, include dizziness, nausea and cold sweat. If you walk up a few flights of stairs and you feel exhausted and there is tightness in your chest, go back down and head to the doctor’s office.
Shortness of breath
Don’t rush to the doctor if have just finished an intense workout and are trying to catch your breath. However, if it happens out of the blue and suddenly, you should be concerned. You may be having an anxiety attack, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Shortness of breath can be a sign of blood clot in an artery in the lung, collapsed lung, swelling of the membrane surrounding the heart and other cardiovascular problems.
If you have been on your feet all day, fluid will sit down and your legs will be swollen at the end of the day. This can be easily fixed. “It’s concerning when the swelling is only in one leg,” Dr. Millins says. There could be a blood clot. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) occurs when a blood clot forms in a large vein. Part of a clot may break off and travel to the lungs, causing a pulmonary embolism, which can be fatal, according to the CDC.
The other time when swollen legs can be a sign of a life-threatening condition is when it is associated with shortness of breath, according to Dr. Millins.
The precise number of people affected by DVT/PE is unknown, although as many as 900,000 people could be affected each year in the U.S. alone, and between 60,000 and 100,000 Americans die of DVT/PE. Also, 10 to 30 percent of patients will die within one month of diagnosis.
Unexplained weight loss/gain
Weight loss or gain is not sudden, but it can be surprising. “When it’s unexplained, it can certainly be concerning,” Dr. Millins says. Losing 10 pounds in a week or two may feel good because you can finally get into your skinny jeans, but don’t forget to ask yourself the question “why this happened.”
It can be a sign of certain types of cancer, your thyroid may be overactive, or you could have a liver disease. Unexplained weight gain can be a sign of heart problems, especially if you’re also experiencing shortness of breath or swollen legs.
Confusion is “always a concern in my mind,” Dr. Millins says, "Especially if it’s associated with tiredness.” You can have a long day at work and be exhausted, but if you also can’t remember how to make coffee, where you put your coat, or can’t remember the name of a close friend, this may be a sign of stroke, infection, low blood pressure, or isolated seizure activity, according to Dr. Millins.